Protecting Workers in Cold Weather

Man on a tractor equipped with a snow blower
Image courtesy of [Anne Louise MacDonald of Hug a Horse Farm] / Getty Images.

Workers in many occupations are subject to injury by exposure to cold. Employees may be particularly vulnerable if they work outdoors, in unheated buildings, or in areas used for cold storage.

Workers exposed to cold air and wind may lose an excessive amount of body heat. The result can be cold stress, a collective term for various cold-related injuries. Cold stress can occur even at moderate temperatures (50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit).

Cold may affect some workers more than others. Those most vulnerable include older workers and those with diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease.

Types of Cold Stress

The CDC has identified the following types of cold stress:

  • Hypothermia Occurs when the body is losing more heat than it can produce. An affected worker may shiver and seem tired or confused. As the condition worsens, shivering may stop. The worker's pulse and breathing may slow, and his or her skin may become blue.
  • Frostbite Occurs when body parts actually freeze. Often affects fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin and cheeks. The affected area may become pale or blueish and may be numb or tingly.
  • Trench Foot Caused by prolonged exposure to moisture and cold, but not freezing, temperatures. The worker may experience numbness, tingling or redness. Blisters or bleeding may occur. Severe cases may lead to gangrene.
  • Chilblains Caused by repeated exposure to cool temperatures above freezing. This condition affects the same body parts as frostbite. The affected area may be red and itchy. Blisters or ulcers may develop.

    Like victims of heat stress, employees affected by cold stress require medical attention. Keep the person warm until help arrives. For more first aid advice, consult the OSHA and CDC websites (see links below).

    Protective Clothing

    One important step you can take to protect your workers from cold stress is to educate them on the proper use of clothing.

    Here are some suggestions from OSHA.

    Dress in Layers

    Workers should dress in layers. OSHA recommends three layers of loose clothing. Loose-fitting clothes trap warm air better than tight-fitting ones.

    Wear Proper Fabrics

    When dressing, workers should wear an inner layer made of wool, silk or a synthetic material. These fabrics keep moisture away from the body. The second (middle) layer should be made of wool or a synthetic. Such materials provide insulation even if they become wet. The outer layer should provide protection from wind and rain. It should also allow ventilation to prevent workers from overheating. 

    Headgear, Boots and Gloves

    Like the rest of the body, the head is vulnerable to heat loss. Thus, workers who are exposed to cold need protective headgear. A hat should extend over the ears to protect them from frostbite. Some workers may require a mask.

    Fingers and toes are highly susceptible to damage by cold. Gloves and boots are important. Both should be insulated and water-proof.

    Extra Clothing

    Clothing can become wet from contact with snow, ice or sweat. Workers should avoid wearing wet clothing because water conducts heat away from the body. To protect themselves, workers should keep extra clothes on hand.

    This will enable them to exchange wet items (like gloves) for dry ones.

    Other Tips

    What else can you do to protect your workers from cold stress? Here are some recommendations from OSHA. For more information, consult your workers compensation insurer. Many insurers provide a variety of free risk control services.

    Food and Drink

    Provide your workers warm, sweetened beverages. Advise them to avoid alcohol and caffeine. At mealtime workers should choose warm, high-calorie foods like pasta.

    Teamwork

    Employees who spend their days in a cold environment should not work alone. For safety purposes, employees should work in teams or pairs.

    Training

    Workers should understand the hazards of cold. They should know the signs of cold stress so they can monitor themselves and each other for symptoms.

    Rest and Acclimatization

    Workers can become acclimated to cold over time. This process can take several days or more. To prevent overexposure, require all of your workers to take frequent breaks in a warm area.