Now that winter is here, workers who labor outside need to take special precautions to avoid frostbite, hypothermia, and other "cold stress" injuries. Those workers most at risk include construction workers, sanitation workers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and tow truck drivers. But remember that in severely cold weather even a few minutes spent outside could result in serious and potentially disabling injuries.
In this blog post we will discuss the major types of cold stress injuries and how to recognize the signs of those injuries, as well as some measures outdoor workers can take to protect themselves and their co-workers.
OSHA's "Cold Card" illustrates the dangers
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a concise summary of the major cold stress injuries in the form of a printable Cold Card.
The card shows that a person can suffer hypothermia even when the temperature is above freezing. Two other cold stress injuries, trench foot and chilblains, can occur at temperatures as high as 60° F. As the temperature drops and other conditions are present such as wind and wet clothing, the possibility of cold-stress injuries increases. Workers are at greater risk for cold stress injuries when they have heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes, are older or in poor condition.
Types of cold stress injuries
These are the major cold stress injuries faced by Colorado workers:
Frostbite - When skin freezes, frostbite occurs. This can lead to loss of tissue and possible amputation. Symptoms of frostbite include numbness, aching and tingling. In addition the skin can feel firm or hard. The skin may also change color to waxy and white, bluish or grayish-yellow.
Hypothermia - When the body temperature drops to 95° F, hypothermia can occur. Severe shivering is the primary sign of hypothermia. Other symptoms include confusion, slurred speech, lack of muscular coordination, slow breathing, and loss of consciousness. A person thought to suffer hypothermia should be brought to a warm place as soon as possible, and emergency medical personnel should be called.
Trench foot - A person can suffer this injury when the feet are exposed to cold water for a sufficient period of time. Symptoms include red skin, tingling, numbness and cramps. A person suffering trench foot should remove wet socks and footwear, and avoid walking to prevent further injury.
Chilblains - This injury occurs when cold damages capillaries just under the skin. Some of its symptoms are similar to those of frostbite, including redness, inflammation, blisters, and itching.
Angina - Breathing in cold air for a period of time can increase the likelihood of angina or chest pains, resulting from insufficient blood flow and oxygen going to the heart. A person suffering angina usually does not feel a sharp pain. Rather the condition feels more indistinct, such as heaviness in the chest, tightness, pressure, or burning sensation.
How outdoor workers can stay safe
One expert in cold-related injuries says that workers should get 15 minutes of rest in a warm place for every hour spent laboring in cold weather. That might not be possible in every circumstance however. These are some of the other things that workers can do to minimize the possibility of cold stress injuries:
- Work outside during the warmest part of the day.
- Follow the buddy system whenever possible. Each buddy should keep an eye on the other one for signs of cold stress injuries.
- Get into a warm place every hour or so.
- Take more frequent breaks when doing physically demanding work.
- Workers in remote locations should have a means of communication such as a cell phone or walkie talkie. The supervisor should periodically check in with these workers.
- Avoid the consumption of caffeine or alcohol when working in cold conditions.
If you have suffered a work-related cold stress injury, you may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. Speak with an attorney if you have questions about your claim.