While winter weather drives many of us to spend long hours indoors to stay warm, there are thousands of workers for whom this isn’t possible. Many people, such as construction workers, snow removal and cleanup crews, police officers, firefighters, utility repair workers and postal service employees, face unpredictable weather and cold temperatures throughout the winter months.
Whether you’re faced with snow, rain, strong winds or extremely cold temperatures, people who spend long periods outside should be aware of the health conditions associated with cold stress. Learn more about cold stress, how it can affect your health and the steps you can take to protect yourself.
When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot.
What Is Cold Stress?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, cold stress is a condition that occurs when the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot.
Cold stress factors can vary across different parts of the country, but it’s often brought on by factors such as temperatures below normal, windchill, rain, snow and wetness (even from sweat). Any of these conditions can allow your body heat to escape at a rate that is faster than your body can produce heat.
Workers who are exposed to extreme cold or who work in cold environments may be at risk for cold stress. Your risk increases if you are:
- Dressed improperly
- Have certain health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism or diabetes
- Have poor physical conditioning
How Can Cold Stress Affect My Health?
Your body works hard to maintain its temperature in the cold. As the cold air draws heat away from your body, your body works to keep your core warm. This shifts blood flow away from your skin, hands, arms, feet and legs, making you susceptible to conditions such as hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.
To keep yourself safe, it’s important to understand these conditions and be aware of the symptoms and related signs.
Hypothermia — Hypothermia results when your body temperature drops too low. Symptoms may include fatigue, excessive or uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, slurred speech and confusion. As it advances, hypothermia can also turn your skin blue, slow your pulse and breathing, dilate your pupils and eventually cause you to lose consciousness.
Frostbite — Frostbite is caused by the freezing of your skin and tissues. If you’re exposed to cold environments for long periods, ice begins to form inside and around your skin cells. This can cause permanent damage and in severe cases lead to amputation. Symptoms include reddened skin, gray or white patches on your skin, blisters, black scabs, the feeling of pins and needles, tingling or aching in the affected areas. You are more susceptible to frostbite if you have reduced blood circulation or if you aren’t dressed properly for the cold.
Trench foot — Trench foot, also called immersion foot syndrome, is a serious and painful condition of the feet caused by standing in cold water or mud for long periods. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees because wet feet lose heat at a much faster rate than dry feet. When this happens, skin tissue begins to die due to lack of oxygen and nutrients. Symptoms include blisters, blotchy skin, redness, prickliness and numbness.
These are serious health conditions that require intervention and treatment. Check out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) website for information on how to treat cold stress conditions, including what to do if you or a coworker experiences symptoms while working.
Tips to Prevent Cold Stress
We can’t control what Mother Nature has in store for us during the winter, but there are steps we can take to ensure we are protected from whatever she throws our way.
- Wear appropriate clothing. This may look different from person to person depending on your job, but good suggestions include:
- Waterproof, insulated boots
- Wind-resistant, waterproof coat
- Waterproof and insulated gloves
- Warm hat
- Several layers (Layering provides better insulation and allows you to remove clothes so you don’t become too hot and start to sweat. When your sweat begins to evaporate, it can cause cooling and may make you more susceptible to cold stress.)
- Loose-fitting clothes (Your blood needs to circulate in cold temperatures so if your clothes are too tight, it can reduce your circulation.)
- Protect your hands, feet, face and ears. These areas are more susceptible to heat loss as your body works to keep your core warm.
- Carry extra clothing. It’s a good idea to keep extra socks, a jacket, a change of clothes and blankets around during the winter. If your clothes get wet, you’ll be able to change quickly, and if you get a break, you could warm up under a blanket.
- Use breaks to warm up. When it’s time for a break, try to get inside and find someplace warm to warm up and get back to a normal body temperature before heading outside again.
- Drink warm liquids. This will feel good, and it also helps to raise your body temperature.
- Monitor yourself and your coworkers for symptoms of cold stress. Use the info above to be aware of yourself and your coworkers throughout the workday. If you suspect someone is suffering from cold stress, get help right away.
- Pay attention to the weather reports. Take a minute to check the weather in the morning. A significant wind chill or temperature drop may be in the forecast, and you’ll want to be prepared.
OSHA provides a Cold Stress Guide with safety tips for workers and more details on how to treat cold-related conditions. OSHA also has a Winter Weather page with helpful winter weather terms and info for employers as well.
Make sure you stay safe this winter by staying up to date on the weather, wearing the right clothing and protecting yourself from the cold.