This week’s deep freeze across the Midwest serves as a reminder that extremely cold conditions call for extreme safety measures. But even exposure to moderately low temperatures, wind and water can have serious health consequences.
Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, develops when the body is unable to replace heat lost to the environment. In addition, when surfaces are icy, or obstacles are obscured by mud or snow, slip and fall risk increases. When it’s cold out, sprains and strains are more likely to occur in the morning before tight muscles are warmed up and at the end of the work day when employees are tired.
Other factors that increase exposure risk in the cold include:
- Complacency or lack of awareness about potential dangers
- Wearing clothing and footwear that are wet or inadequate for conditions
- Poor physical fitness, cardiovascular disease, or being ill with a cold or the flu
- Age/gender: Heat regulation declines with age and statistics show men are more susceptible to cold-related injuries than women
- Becoming exhausted, immobilized, injured, submerged, lost or entrapped
- Drinking alcohol or using substances that impair judgment or physical function
Did You Know?
When it’s cold, employees have to work harder to maintain their body’s core temperature. Cold-weather workers who wear heavy, protective clothing require 10-15 percent more calories a day compared to those working in temperate climates.
What Can You Do?
To work safely in cold weather, it’s always advisable for employees to:
- Check the weather forecast, follow advisories and be prepared for changing conditions.
- Take extra precautions on wet surfaces, snow or ice and during physical exertion.
- Seek shelter to rewarm the body with a warm beverage and radiant heat source.
- Wear clothing in layers to retain body heat and repel water; pack extra clothing.
- Select footwear designed for the conditions and replace wet socks.
- Use goggles or sunglasses to protect eyes; apply sunscreen or balm to skin and lips.
- Exercise regularly to build strength, stamina and flexibility; stretch before/after activity.
- Drink plenty of water, eat nutritious foods and carry snacks to boost energy.
- Avoid excessive alcohol and smoking (nicotine constricts blood vessels).
- Use a handhold when stepping out of a vehicle and move slowly at entryways.
Watch for Cold-Related Symptoms
It’s also important to be prepared to respond to cold-related symptoms. Shivering, an early indicator of cold stress, causes blood to flow from the extremities and skin surface to the body’s core (chest and abdomen). A person suffering from cold stress may be re-warmed by going indoors, wrapping up in blankets, moving around to generate body heat and given a sweetened, warm, non-alcoholic beverage.
Shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination, confusion (slurred speech) and disorientation are symptoms of hypothermia. In advanced stages, signs include the absence of shivering, blue skin, dilated pupils, shallow breathing and irregular heartbeat. In late stages, the victim may feel too warm and want to remove clothing. It’s important to get immediate medical assistance for these symptoms and ask emergency medical technicians for rewarming instructions. Until help arrives, you may be advised to:
- Move the person to a warm, dry room or shelter
- Remove wet clothing, shoes and socks
- Keep the person in a horizontal position
- Cover the person’s body with blankets or towels and a vapor barrier
- Place warm bottles or hot packs in armpits, the groin area and along sides of the chest
Rewarming should not be attempted if someone is unconscious. If a person is not breathing or has no pulse for a period of one minute, rescue breathing may be started. Chest compression should only be applied under the direction of emergency response personnel.
To learn more, refer to WorkCare’s Fact Sheet on Preventing Cold-Related Injuries and Illnesses.