Protecting Your Workers From Cold Stress

Extreme cold weather can lead to serious health problems, including tissue damage and even death.

January 3, 2023

The current winter weather in the United States serves as a reminder that, during winter’s cold months, it’s important to be aware of the effects that “cold stress” can have on workers—and know how to prevent it from happening.

What Is Cold Stress?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), cold stress occurs when weather conditions drive down a person’s skin temperature and, eventually, the body’s internal temperature. This situation can lead to serious health problems, including tissue damage and even death.

Anyone working in a cold environment could be at risk for cold stress. This includes workers that are required to work outdoors in cold environments and for extended periods of time, such as snow cleanup crews and sanitation workers.

How Cold Is Too Cold?

What constitutes “extreme cold” can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not accustomed to colder weather, near freezing temperatures are low enough to be considered extreme cold.

Wind chill also needs to be considered when determining the risk of cold stress. Wind chill
is the temperature your body feels when air temperature and wind speed are combined. Whenever temperatures drop below normal and wind speed increases, heat can leave your body more rapidly and lower your body temperature.

Additional Risk Factors

Temperature and wind chill aren’t the only risk factors that contribute to cold stress. Others to watch for include:

  • Wetness or dampness
  • Being improperly dressed
  • Exhaustion
  • Predisposing health conditions (such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes)
  • Poor physical condition.

Cold-Induced Illnesses and Injuries

A worker suffering from cold stress could develop the following:

  • Hypothermia—when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced and the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F
  • Frostbite—an injury to the body that is caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues
  • Trench Foot—death of skin tissue that occurs when prolonged exposure to wet and cold temperatures cause the body’s blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet.

Steps to Prevent Cold Stress

Employers have a responsibility to provide workers with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards, including cold stress, which can cause death or serious physical harm. OSHA suggests that employers take the following steps to help keep workers safer in cold temperatures:

  • Provide equipment to help workers stay warmer, such as radiant heaters, and if possible, physically shield work areas from drafts to reduce wind chill.
  • Ensure that workers stay hydrated by providing warm, sweetened drinks (no alcohol).
  • Assign heavy work during warmer parts of the day.
  • Provide frequent breaks in warm areas. Allow workers to interrupt their work if they become extremely uncomfortable.
  • Use the buddy system to assign workers tasks in pairs, so that they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress.
  • Encourage workers to dress properly, using layers to stay warm and dry. Workers should wear warm fabrics, such as wool, silk, and synthetics that retain their insulation even when wet. Hats and knit masks, as well as insulated and waterproof gloves and boots, should also be worn.
  • Train workers on how to recognize and prevent the illnesses and injuries that are related to cold stress.

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