Working in Extreme Cold Temperatures

Every winter, district workers go out into the cold to perform vital tasks for their community. Whether these individuals are fighting fires, digging trenches, or flagging on the road, the risks they undertake in winter are exacerbated by the temperature extremes of the winter months.

While everyone is vulnerable to cold weather, certain employees may be more susceptible. These include people with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, or anemia. People who are older, taking certain medications or are in poor physical condition are also at a heightened risk. These conditions are worse for everyone when windy weather is mixed with wetness from sweat or other sources.

There are a number of different physical maladies that can occur from cold stress. The most common types of cold stress are frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite is caused by the freezing of the skin and tissues. Water in the body’s cells freezes and expands as ice crystals, damaging or destroying the surrounding cells and tissues. Symptoms include reddening skin that turns white or gray, especially on the extremities and nose. It also includes tingling, aching, numbness, and blistering.

While it might seem like a good idea, do not rub a frostbitten area or you risk damaging the tissues even more. Furthermore, don’t apply heating pads, fire or warm water. Simply wrap the affected area loosely in a dry, warm cloth, and seek medical attention right away. Medical professionals must conduct the re-warming in order to avoid further damage.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s internal temperature drops below 95° Fahrenheit. This is a dangerous, life-threatening condition that can come on slowly and is difficult to detect until the person’s condition is serious. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, bradycardia (slow heart rate), and unconsciousness.

This condition should be considered a medical emergency, and anyone experiencing these symptoms should receive immediate medical attention. In the meantime, it is best to ensure they are not wearing anything wet, and are wrapped with blankets or warm dry clothes, topped off with a vapor barrier like a garbage bag. You can also give them warm, sweetened drinks like hot chocolate, but avoid caffeine or alcohol. Finally, you can place hot packs or hot water bottles on their chest, armpits and groin.

Below are some tips which will help you keep your workers safe, warm, and dry when working in the field during the winter months.

Cold Weather Tips for Managers

  • Recognize risky environmental and workplace conditions.
  • Learn the signs and treatments of cold stress.
  • Train workers about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Encourage proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions, including layers that can be adjusted to changing conditions.
  • Be sure workers in extreme conditions take frequent short breaks in warm, dry shelters to allow their bodies to warm up.
  • Try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day.
  • Because energy is needed to keep muscles warm, avoid working to the point of exhaustion or fatigue.
  • Assign workers in pairs so that they can spot warning signs.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea or sodas) or alcohol.
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods such as hot pasta dishes.
  • Remember the risks to those taking certain medications, in poor physical condition or suffering from certain illnesses.
    Source: OSHA
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