Cold Stress on the Job – and How to Prevent it
January 4, 2020
With the chilly, wintry weather comes certain job-related hazards, especially for employees working outside or indoors in low temperatures. Cold stress can cause a variety of physical problems, some of which can be deadly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that approximately 4,000 workers file temperature-related injury claims every year. Luckily, there are several precautionary steps that employers and employees alike can take in order to prevent cold stress-related illnesses and injuries.
Cold Stress: General Information and Risk Factors
Some of the most common conditions related to cold stress that workers experience are:
- Hypothermia, which is when a person’s body temperature drops rapidly because they are losing heat faster than they can produce it. When a person’s body temperature gets too low, it can affect his or her brain, making it difficult to think clearly.
- Frostbite: an injury to the body resulting from freezing. Frostbite causes damage to body tissue because of a reduced oxygen supply and limited blood flow to the affected area. Frostbite usually affects the ears, nose, chin, cheeks, fingers, or toes. In severe cases, frostbite results in permanent tissue damage and/or amputation.
- Trench foot, or immersion foot. Trench foot is an injury to the feet that happens after prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions. Although trench foot is most common at temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees, it can happen in any climate. This condition develops when a person’s feet are exposed to the wet and cold, compromising overall nerve function and decreasing blood and oxygen flow.
Certain workers face particularly high risks for temperature-related illnesses and injuries. According to OSHA those workers are meat packers, bakers, recreation and event staff, roadway employees, and landscapers. Employers in these industries should be especially mindful of implementing effective control measures that help prevent avoidable temperature-related injuries from occurring.
Symptoms of Cold Stress
Workers who are exposed to cold stress hazards should be sure to know the symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot. Some of the most common symptoms associated with trench foot include visible changes to the feet, such as blotchy skin, redness, blisters, and skin tissue that dies and falls off. Trench foot can also be accompanied by certain physical sensations, such as:
- Pain when exposed to heat,
- Prickliness, and:
- Persistent itching
Hypothermia and frostbite present quite differently although both result from sustained exposure to cold temperatures. Symptoms of frostbite generally include a prickling or numb sensation, waxy or “hard” looking skin, skin that turns white, red, bluish-white, or grayish-yellow, skin that blisters after reheating, and clumsiness or a decreased range of motion/physical movement in the affected area(s). Frostbite is a serious medical condition requiring immediate medical intervention and treatment.
Hypothermia can cause deadly complications like heart problems, kidney failure, pneumonia, and hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen to blood tissue. Common signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Drowsiness or exhaustion,
- Slurred speech,
- Slow or shallow breathing, and:
- A loss of physical coordination, such as fumbling to use hands or stumbling when walking
If you suspect that you or someone you work with is becoming hypothermic, please call 9-1-1 right away.
Safety Tips for Avoiding Cold Stress
Employers are obligated to provide employees with safe and healthy work environments, and protecting them from recognizable cold stress-related hazards is no exception. Because both air temperature and wind speed affect how cold a person feels, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) developed an instructional guide overseeing maximum work periods and the necessary number of breaks during a 4-hour shift. To learn more about the ACGIH’s guide, you can visit: https://www.osha.gov/dts/weather/winter_weather/windchill.html.
Some other safe work practices and control measures that can effectively limit cold stress exposure at work include:
- Wear plenty of layers and make sure to keep clothes dry. Remove any wet clothing or shoes and change into something dry right away,
- Take breaks somewhere warm (like in a heated vehicle or indoors) as needed,
- Make sure to keep an eye on coworkers and monitor their behavior for concerning cold stress symptoms. If you notice anything, report it to a supervisor immediately, and:
- Drink warm beverages to help maintain a stable core temperature.
If you experienced a cold stress-related injury on the job and are considering filing a workers’ compensation claim, someone at our firm can help. Call us today to schedule a free consultation.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP Represent Individuals Injured at Work
If you were injured at work, please contact our Philadelphia workers’ compensation attorneys. With offices located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To schedule a consultation, call us at 800-222-8792 or complete our online contact form.