As temperatures drop this season, employers must recognize and prevent safety risks their workers face when working in cold environments. Workers can face cold stress whenever external temperatures drive down someone’s internal body temperature to unhealthy levels. This article provides actionable tips for protecting workers from winter weather and ensure their safety when working in cold temperatures. 

What is Cold Stress?

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) describes cold stress as any situation in which cold outside temperatures drive down skin temperature, lowering core body temperature. As skin temperature drops, workers are at risk for frostbitten hands and feet, as well as hypothermia. 

What Workers are Most in Danger of Cold Stress?

Anyone working outdoors in the winter runs a higher risk of cold stress: police, firefighters, emergency response personnel, ranchers, construction workers, delivery drivers, sanitation workers, road crews, snow removal crews, and many others. But employers must also know how to protect workers from cold stress in refrigerated indoor environments too. 

Adding wetness to cold conditions can accelerate cold stress, and inadequate protective clothing can worsen exposure risks even more. Hypothermic exhaustion and loss of coordination can lead to further workplace hazards. Workers with conditions like diabetes, hypertension or hypothyroidism or who are in otherwise poor physical condition can be particularly susceptible to the dangers of cold.

How to Protect Workers from Cold Stress 

Employers can take several steps to protect workers from the cold, such as:

  • Providing warm beverages and snacks keeps internal temperatures stable. 
  • Scheduling outdoor work during warmer parts of the day also helps. When that isn’t possible, schedule frequent breaks indoors for warming up, according to this OSHA temperature and windchill chart
  • Employers should send workers out in teams so they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress and take prompt measures when necessary.

Proper clothing is essential. Workers should dress with warmth and dryness in mind. Synthetic fabrics, silk and wool are far better at retaining insulation than cotton, even if they get damp. This is how Canada’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association recommends dressing for cold working conditions

  • Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothes with moisture-wicking qualities. Consider additional layers for personal comfort or extreme conditions, but avoid tight-fitting clothes that trap moisture or cause overheating. 
  • The inner layer should be synthetic or silk to wick away dampness.
  • The middle layer (or layers) should be synthetic or wool to boost insulation and resist moisture.
  • The outer layer should be wind and water-resistant or waterproof with ventilation to prevent overheating. 
  • Wear a hood or hat to keep heat from escaping your head. 
  • If needed, consider a balaclava for more face and neck protection. 

Protect Workers’ Hands and Feet in the Cold

Hands and feet can be particularly susceptible to cold stress: 

  • Wear insulated, wind and water resistant gloves
  • Workers who need to perform fine work with bare hands should also have access to hand warmers, warm air jets and heaters. 
  • Cover metal tool handles with thermal insulating materials.
  • Workers should avoid tight footwear. Wear insulated or waterproof footwear with one layer of thick, insulating, synthetic or wool socks, or two layers of thinner socks that wick away moisture. 

Know the Warning Signs of Cold Stress

One of the most important ways employers can protect workers from cold stress is training. Supervisors and employees should all know how to avoid cold stress, and be able to quickly recognize and alleviate the symptoms in themselves and others. 

Hypothermia 

With hypothermia, as with any workplace hazards, preventing and addressing mild symptoms immediately is key to protecting workers.

  • Mild: Alert, but shivering. Get the worker warm immediately. Replace wet clothes with dry clothes, cover with blankets and provide a warm, sweet drink if alert. Provide hot packs for core body areas. 
  • Moderate to severe: Shivering worsens and the person may show blue lips and fingers. Shivering may stop, and the person might become confused, disoriented and lose coordination. Breathing and pulse may slow, pupils may dilate and they may pass out. Call 911. 

Frostbite

Protecting extremities (feet and hands) is key to preventing frostbite. 

  • Initially, skin may appear red, but can develop white and gray patches
  • Numbness and hardening of the skin
  • Blisters in severe situations. 

Follow hypothermia protocols listed above and cover, but do not rub or douse the affected area in warm water. Get medical help immediately. 

Protecting Workers from Winter Weather: Why Now, Especially?

This year, cold stress is only one workplace safety concern on everyone’s minds. In addition to the annual cold and flu cycle, COVID-19 is a serious health risk. Employers have a responsibility to make their workplaces safe to prevent injury and illness, now more than ever. Training and proactive steps are essential, and Anvl empowers your workers and supervisors to take action when safety risks are present. Request a demo to see how it works today.