The Many Risks of Occupational Cold Exposure
January 6, 2022
As the days and nights get colder, employers will make sure to have comprehensive safety and health plans in place to mitigate known risk factors associated with cases of occupational cold exposure. While extreme weather patterns – like very high or low temperatures — both cause nonfatal and fatal injuries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) receive two times as many reports of cold weather-related deaths as compared to hot weather ones each year.
While environmental factors can cause cold stress injuries for everyone, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that certain workers encounter higher risks of exposure than others do. The workers who face the highest risks are recreational workers, transportation workers, construction workers, snow clean-up crew members, police officers, agricultural workers and firefighters. Workers with various underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and hypothyroidism, are also more likely to experience physical complications associated with occupational cold exposure.
Types of Cold Stress
There are several factors for cold stress, including freezing (as well as near freezing) temperatures, increased wind speeds, and physical wetness and/or dampness. Factors like these can result in one or more types of cold stress in workers. Here are some of OSHA’s examples of the different kinds of cold stress that outdoor workers are prone to develop:
- Frostbite, which results from the freezing of the skin and bodily tissues. Frostbite can cause serious physical damage and, in some cases, even leads to amputation. Symptoms of frostbite include reddened skin marked by gray or white patches on the fingers, toes, nose, or earlobes, aching, tingling, a loss of feeling, and blisters on the affected area(s). If a person has frostbite, it is important to protect the frostbitten area; you can do this by wrapping it in a dry cloth. Do not rub or attempt to heat up the affected area, as this can cause additional and potentially irreversible tissue damage. If the person is alert, give them a warm, sugary drink that is non-alcoholic. In the case of a medical emergency, call 9-1-1 right away
- Trench or immersion foot. Trench foot is a condition caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur in temperatures up to 60°F so long as the feet are consistently damp or wet. A person with trench foot will typically exhibit reddened skin, a tingling sensation, leg cramps, pain, swelling, numbness, and blisters. Some workers who develop trench foot experience permanent nerve damage, the loss of the ability to walk on the affected foot or feet, and/or amputation. If a person is showing signs of immersion foot, OSHA recommends removing their wet shoes and/or socks, drying their feet, discontinuing working, and keeping the affected area(s) elevated. Individuals who develop trench foot need to be seen by a doctor
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia is the result of prolonged exposure to the cold, which causes the body to use up all its stored energy. After using up all its stored energy, the body begins losing heat faster than it is able to produce more. When this occurs, a person develops an abnormally low body temperature, or hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia to look out for include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, a low heart rate, slowed breathing, and loss of consciousness. It is important to note that severe cases of hypothermia can be fatal to the victim. If you suspect that someone is hypothermic, call 9-1-1 immediately. As you wait for help to arrive, move the worker to a warm, dry area and remove any wet clothing, replacing it with dry clothes. Wrap their entire body in layers of blankets and use a vapor barrier, like a tarp. Do not cover the individual’s face with material
Limiting Cold Weather Hazards for Workers
Despite how severe cold weather-related injuries can be, the good news is that there are numerous steps that employers can take to protect workers from dangerous exposure while they work. Here are just a few examples of OSHA’s recommendations on reducing known risk factors for cold stress:
- Because workers who are exposed to cold temperatures and windy conditions face especially high risks for experiencing cold stress, employers should use the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Wind Chill Calculator. This tool takes air temperature and wind speed into account in order to determine the wind chill temperature, or the actual effect of the cold on the skin. After determining the wind chill temperature, employers should refer to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ (ACGIH) Work/Warm-Up Schedule to provide recommendations on work breaks and when to cease non-emergency work in the case of extreme weather conditions
- Workers should wear plenty of layers and keep their clothing dry. It is important to remove wet clothing or shoes and to put dry ones on right away
- Drink warm beverages to help maintain a stable core body temperature
- Take breaks in a warm place, like a heated vehicle, as often as you need to
- Keep a watchful eye on your coworkers and be sure to monitor yourself for symptoms as well. If anyone is showing any concerning signs of cold stress, report it to a supervisor and get help right away
Although there is no stopping the cold weather, employers are obligated to implement effective safety and health programs to mitigate known risk factors. Despite their legal and ethical duties to uphold various federal standards, far too often employers fail to safeguard workers from occupational dangers. If you sustain injuries related to cold exposure on the job and want to file a workers’ compensation claim, someone at our firm can help. Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that provides wage replacement and medical benefits to injured workers. If you would like to learn more about filing a claim, contact a representative online now.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP, Representing Injured Victims Since 1947
If you sustained injuries and you would like to pursue a just recovery of damages, contact our Philadelphia workers’ compensation lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP today. Call us at 800-222-USWA (8792) or fill out our online form for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Harrisburg.