Cold Work Environments—How the Body Reacts

As a cold snap hit much of the country this week, it’s time to remember the risks that workers who brave outdoor conditions face each winter.


Of course, it should be said that while outdoor conditions immediately come to mind when we think of working in cold environments, similar conditions can also exist indoors, such as freezer work.  Working in a cold environment such as refrigerators, walk in freezers or cold storage on a day-to-day basis can cause ill-health effects as well.


When our core body temperature drops just a few degrees below its normal temperature of 98.6°F, the blood vessels constrict, decreasing peripheral blood flow to reduce heat loss from the surface of the skin.  Excessive exposure to cold working conditions can lead to lower work efficiency, reduced mental awareness, and higher accident rates. 


So, whether the tasks vary from operating a fork truck in a freezer, tending a salmon pen on the open waters, or construction work in the elements, the results are potentially life threatening.  There are multiple engineering controls and safe work practices that can help protect our workers. Among them are:

  • Personal Protective Equipment (layered clothing, gloves, insulated footwear).
  • On-site heat sources.
  • Shielding workers from wind.
  • A heated shelter.
  • Establishing rotations/frequent breaks away from the cold.
  • Establishing a buddy system in cold environments.
  • Educating workers about the cold-related symptoms.

Remember:  Cold-related ailments often go undetected until the worker’s health is endangered.  Let’s take steps to protect.


For more on cold work environment symptoms, treatment, and protection, you can visit the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety's website.