January is the height of the cold season and we’re not talking about sniffles and sneezes, but the reality of working outdoors in freezing conditions, coupled with wind and driving snow.
Working outdoors in winter is often more than uncomfortable. It can be life-threatening if hypothermia sets in. Workers who are not properly dressed for the conditions may also suffer frostbite, which can be so severe that affected fingers, toes or limbs require amputation.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 35 C or 95 F. When this occurs, the body loses its ability to prevent heat loss. Hypothermia can occur in outdoor temperatures as high as 10 C (50 F), especially if it is also windy and workers have become wet as a result of sweating or water soaking their clothing.
For example, if it is 30F (-1C) outside and there is a 20 mile per hour (30 km/h) wind blowing, it will feel as though it is 17 F (-8 C).
Supervisors need to know the symptoms of hypothermia and watch for evidence of it in workers. People going into hypothermia usually start shivering and may be seen stomping their feet in an effort to warm up. Other symptoms include:
– Loss of coordination Confused thinking Slurred speech Pale, cold skin
A person may lose consciousness when his or her core body temperature drops below 30 C (85 F). Death can easily occur.
Supervisors especially need to watch older workers and workers on medications for signs of hypothermia, because they are more likely to lose body heat.
If you spot signs of mild hypothermia in a worker, that person needs to be immediately removed to a warm area and kept active. The worker should remove wet clothes, be given dry clothes or a heavy blanket and a hat to keep the head warm and be offered a warm, sugary drink, but not one that contains caffeine.
If the person is exhibiting signs of confusion, slurred speech or loss of coordination, medical help should be summoned immediately. If you have a hot water bottle or heat pack available, use it to help the worker warm up.
Frostbite occurs when the skin, particularly the feet or hands, freezes. But it can occur at temperatures above 0 C (32 F) if there’s a wind.
-Skin that is red, then purple, then white and is cold to the touch.
If you suspect a worker has suffered frost bite, don’t rub the skin in an effort to warm it. Take the worker to a warm area, wrap the affected area in a soft cloth and summon expert medical help.
How to Prevent Cold Stress
Supervisors should encourage workers to wear clothing in three layers—an inner layer of synthetic, wool or silk material to wick away moisture, a middle layer of synthetic or wool material to provide insulation and an outer layer designed to protect the person from wind or precipitation.
Workers also need to be wearing:
A hat, because up to 40 percent of a person’s body heat can be lost through a bare head.
Insulated work boots.
Encourage workers to bring an extra set of dry clothing to work in case they become wet and need to change.
Work Practice Controls
In addition to dressing for the conditions, workers need to take other steps to avoid cold stress. Supervisors should encourage workers to:
Drink plenty of non-caffeinated warm liquids. Eat warm foods such as pasta or hearty soups to maintain energy.
Perform heavy physical tasks during warmer parts of the day.
Take periodic rest breaks in warm areas. Watch out for signs of cold stress in their co-workers.
Supervisors should bring radiant heaters in to warm workers during breaks. Also, whenever possible, outdoor work areas should be shielded from winds.