Living and working in Pennsylvania has its many challenges especially when it comes to working outside in frigid temperatures. Preparing your employees to protect themselves against cold weather injuries will help keep them safe and productive.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that prolonged exposure to freezing or even cold temperatures can result in serious injury or potentially death. OSHA’s guide on cold stress states the three most common injuries with the cold are frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot.

Frostbite is the freezing of skin and the underlying tissue. Remember the lower the temperature, the faster frostbite occurs. Frostbite most commonly affects the extremities, such as, one’s hands and feet. In severe cases, amputation may be necessary.

Frostbite symptoms include:

  • Reddened skin develops gray/white patches
  • Numbness in the affected area
  • Affected area feels firm or hard
  • In severe cases, blisters may occur in the affected part

Hypothermia is when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. Hypothermia sets in when the human body temperature drops below 95⁰ F.

Hypothermia symptoms include:
Mild Symptoms

  • An exposed worker remains alert, but may begin to shiver and stomp their feet to generate heat

Moderate to Severe Symptoms

  • As body temperature continues to fall, symptoms worsen and shivering will stop
  • Loss of coordination, confusion or disorientation will occur
  • Unable to walk or stand, dilated pupils, slow pulse and breathing, unconsciousness, potentially death

Trench Foot is caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold temperatures. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts the blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. The skin tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products.

Trench Foot symptoms include:

  • Redness of the skin
  • Numbness
  • Blisters
  • Swelling

What to Do if Cold Related Injury or Illness Occurs?

  • If an emergency call 911, otherwise seek medical attention as soon as possible
  • Move person to a warm and dry area
  • Remove any wet clothes and replace with dry ones, cover the body with blankets and a vapor barrier (garbage bags or tarps)
  • Give person warm sweetened liquids to drink
  • Place warm bottles or hot packs under the armpits, sides of the chest and groin

For frostbite:

  • Do NOT rub the area to warm it, as this can cause more damage
  • Do not apply water or snow
  • Loosely cover and protect the affected area
  • Do not try and rewarm the area before getting medical help
  • Rewarming and then refreezing will cause more tissue damage

For trench foot:

  • Remove boots, shoes and wet socks
  • Dry feet

How To Prevent Cold Stress:

Employers should train their employees in preventive measures to combat cold stress. Being able to recognize the symptoms of cold stress and how to apply basic first aid is important for every employee to know.

Employers should provide engineering controls to help. An example of this would be to use radiant heaters or shield workers with tarps to prevent overexposure to wind.

Employers need to have cold stress controls and procedures in place as normal practice. An example would be providing warm sweetened drinks, as it is very easy to become dehydrated in cold weather. Give employees breaks often in a warm dry space if possible. Also establish a buddy system so workers can spot early signs of cold stress and if possible, schedule the hardest labor during the warmest hours of the day.

Dressing properly is one of the most important parts of preventing cold stress. The type of fabric used is important. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet. Wool, silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation even when wet. Wear at least three layers of loose fitting clothes, wear hats, as they reduce the amount of heat lost through your head, wear insulated (possible water resistant) gloves, and wear waterproof and insulated footwear.

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