In winter months, people can become susceptible to injuries due to unaccustomed exposure to cold weather conditions. Those most vulnerable include persons who work in buildings without heat or proper insulation and whose jobs are frequently outdoors and bare to the elements. Some examples of occupations that are at risk include construction workers, cold storage workers, emergency responders, ski resort employees, delivery workers, snow and ice removal crews and warehouse workers.
Cold stress injuries are often unreported. The severity of the injury may differ depending on the type of weather conditions the workers are accustomed to and how fast the heat leaves the body, which may vary from person to person. However, all individuals risk of exposure increases when safety measures are not in place.
Types of Cold Stress Injuries
Exposure to extreme cold or repeat exposure to freezing or near freezing temperatures can result in cold-related occupational diseases. The four types of cold stress include the following:
- Hypothermia occurs when a person's body temperature becomes abnormally low, usually below 95 degrees. When this happens, an individual's ability to think clearly is affected, loss of consciousness may be the result and in some cases death.
- Frostbite occurs when parts of the body freeze and form ice crystals, which can cause damage to the tissue. This damage is often permanent and amputation may even be necessary in some cases.
- Trench Foot or immersion foot occurs when the feet are cold and wet for a prolonged period of time. Circulation in the feet slows as a result and skin tissue may die.
- Chilblains can occur when skin is exposed to temperatures that are milder (above freezing to 60 degrees) and causes damage to blood vessels, often on the face, toes and fingers. Damage can be permanent.
Avoiding Cold Stress Injuries This Winter
Certain occupations present a higher risk for cold stress injuries; however, workers can employ safety tips to limit exposure this winter season.
- Wear loose-layered clothing to insulate the body and promote circulation.
- Keep extremities adequately protected with warm outerwear and waterproof boots.
- Limit prolonged time in cold weather conditions and take breaks to warm up.
- Keep a first aid kit that includes extra warm dry gear and hot packs.
- Monitor your co-workers and be on the lookout for exposure symptoms.
Employers should also have safety measures in place to protect employees from cold-related occupational diseases. Some precautions may include reducing shift lengths in cold elements, providing warm shelters for breaks, giving workers training to prevent cold stress injuries and scheduling outdoor jobs during warmer months whenever possible.