Avoid cold stress

November 1, 2012

As winter approaches, one thing outdoor workers should know about is the “cold stress equation.” According to OSHA, low temperatures plus wind speed and wetness equals injuries and illnesses. When the body is unable to warm itself due to these conditions, permanent tissue damage and even death may occur. One cold-stress danger is frostbite. When frostbite sets in, a worker’s skin may become hard and numb and appear waxy-white. It usually first affects the extremities, face and nose.

If a worker experiences any of these symptoms, OSHA advises moving the person to a warm, dry area; removing any wet or tight clothing that may cut off blood flow to the affected area; and gently placing the affected area in a warm water bath. Do not pour warm water directly on the affected area because it will warm the tissue too fast, causing damage. Warming takes roughly 25-40 minutes. Refrain from rubbing the affected area in an attempt to warm it, as this can damage the tissue. Then, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

To prevent frostbite and other cold stress injuries and illnesses, OSHA recommends the following tips:

  • Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Train workers about cold-induced injuries and illnesses.
  • Select proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions. Layer clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures.
  • Take frequent short breaks in warm, dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
  • Work during the warmest part of the day, if possible.
  • Work in pairs.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol.

OSHA cautions that certain people have an increased risk of suffering cold stress-related injuries. They include:

  • Those with health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.
  • Workers who take certain medications. These workers are advised to check with their doctor, nurse or pharmacy to see if any medicines they take might affect them working in cold environments.
  • Workers in poor physical condition, who have a poor diet or who are older.