Working in Cold Conditions

Now that our January thaw has come and gone, frigid conditions can be expected in the Northeast with the mercury plummeting into the single digits or below 0 degrees F. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides an overview of cold stress conditions on their website along with safeguarding recommendations for employers and workers.  We’re all aware of hypothermia and frostbite as the more common types of cold stress but here are a few other conditions described on the website (click on the CDC link above).

Cold Water Immersion - Cold water immersion creates a specific condition known as immersion hypothermia. It develops much more quickly than standard hypothermia because water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air. Typically people in temperate climates don’t consider themselves at risk from hypothermia in the water, but hypothermia can occur in any water temperature below 70°F.

Trench Foot - Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, is an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F if the feet are constantly wet.

Chilblains - Chilblains are caused by the repeated exposure of skin to temperatures just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees F. The cold exposure causes damage to the capillary beds (groups of small blood vessels) in the skin. This damage is permanent and the redness and itching will return with additional exposure. The redness and itching typically occurs on cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes.

Symptoms and first aid measures are also listed for each type of cold stress condition.   The recommendations for employers describe administrative controls for protection that include reducing physical demands, monitoring workers that are at risk, and employee training.  Recommendations for workers include wearing appropriate clothing (several layers, wear a hat, waterproof and insulated boots), moving into warm environments during breaks, and avoid touching cold metal surfaces with bare skin.  Anyone who’s ever been dared as a child to put their tongue on a flag pole in the dead of winter knows the importance of this last tip.

The CDC webpage provides links to other government sites as additional resources including OSHA’s Cold Stress Guide on hypothermia and frostbite.

So read up, stay warm, and think Spring!