Every year, there is plenty of focus on heat-related safety. Workers are pulled off job sites if it gets too hot, we make sure that air-conditioned facilities are available, we provide plenty of water, and drill team members on heat safety. So why don’t we pay as much attention to cold exposure?
When we discuss winter safety on job sites, we generally focus on the slips, trips, and falls caused by ice, snow, and slippery surfaces. We discuss the hazards of snow clearing. We consider how some tools may have added difficulties or different techniques in the cold weather. We make sure to protect our heavy equipment, inside and out.
Still, we often fail to consider the effects of prolonged exposure to the cold on job sites. So what do you need to be on the lookout for, what are the damages that cold exposure can cause, and what are your best ways to reduce and eliminate it?
What is Cold Exposure?
The name for it is pretty much the definition: cold exposure is damage that comes from being exposed to wet, windy, and cold weather. Also often referred to as cold stress, it is environmental impact on the body.
Extreme cold is what leads to cold exposure or cold stress, but it’s not the easiest thing to define. Extreme cold is often relative to region and even the individual. While folks in Texas might see temperatures that hover just above freezing to be extreme cold, workers in upstate New York might scoff at that. It’s more a question of what is “normal” for the region and the individual. One of the key things to keep in mind when discussing cold exposure is that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all for your workers. A worker who just moved to New York from Florida will have differing tolerances than a native.
Wind chill is another idea to keep in mind when considering what is “too cold.” Wind speed magnifies the chill in the air, creating a nasty effect on the skin. OSHA cites that, even at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, when the wind speed reaches 35 miles per hour the skin is affected as though the air temperature is 28 degrees.
Damage That Cold Exposure Can Cause
Different amounts of cold exposure and differing conditions can lead to various outcomes. Every person is an individual who can be hit by exposure differently. Workers who are older, who take certain medications, who have illnesses including diabetes and hypertension, or who are merely in poor physical condition will be at a higher risk.
Sometimes referred to as perniones, chill burns, or perniosis, these are on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to conditions from cold exposure. An inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin, they aren’t deadly, but are certainly painful. They come with itching, red patches, swelling, and blistering, and usually occur on the hands or feet. They are generally short-term, but can recur for years after the first incident.
Somewhat of a precursor to frostbite, frost nip generally hits the face, ears, or fingertips, and causes numbness or whitening of the skin. By getting warm when this is noticed, normal feeling and color will return. No permanent tissue damage occurs from frostnip, but if you don’t warm it up when noticed, the next step is frostbite.
When cold temperatures combine with the wet and moist environment present in heavy footwear and moisture-retaining socks, your feet will suffer. Wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet do, so this issue can occur even in temperatures that aren’t drastically cold. As your feet try to prevent heat loss, your body constricts blood vessels and shuts down circulation to your feet. This leads to skin tissue beginning to die due to lack of oxygen, lack of nutrients, and buildup of toxic products in the feet. Items like our waterproof, over-the-shoe slush boots can help to protect your feet from wet conditions.
SHOP: Slush Boots
This is where cold exposure can take a drastic turn. Usually affecting the extremities, frostbite comes from the freezing of the skin and the underlying tissue. Reddened skin develops gray or white patches, there is sever numbness, the affected area will feel firm or hard, and blisters mat occur. This must be treated immediately, removing the worker from the cold to a warm, dry area and seeking medical assistance. Wet clothing should be removed and replaced with dry, loose coverings, and the area should be protected from contact. If addressed immediately, the extremities may be able to be saved, but severe cases can result in amputation.
Cold can take a deadly turn – in fact, according to the CDC in a study conducted from 2006 through 2010, it caused on average twice as many deaths every year as heat exposure did. While this is across the population, it shows just how dangerous cold can be – and most of those exposure deaths can be attributed to hypothermia.
Hypothermia is when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced, with the core body temperature dropping to under 95 degrees Fahrenheit. While this generally occurs at very cold temperatures, adding moisture such as rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water can lead to hypothermia when the temperatures are well above freezing. Hypothermia can be indicated by shivering and stomping of the feet to generate heat in mild cases. However, severe cases will actually lead to the shivering to stop, and the effected worker will start to lose coordination, and show signs of confusion and disorientation. They may become unable to stand, while breathing may also slow. If left untreated, this will lead to death.
If a worker is suffering from hypothermia, they need to be moved to a warm, dry area immediately and medical assistance or emergency assistance should be contacted. Replace wet clothes with dry clothes, cover the body with blankets and a vapor barrier, and encourage the drinking of warm, sweetened drinks. Do not cover the face. Keep the workers movements to a minimum, and get professional emergency help.
Mitigating Cold Exposure
Weather doesn’t care about your construction schedule, so you can’t pull your team off the site and indoors every time the mercury starts dropping. There are a number of ways you can mitigate the effects of cold on your team, and reduce or eliminate the dangers of cold exposure.
- Schedule Outside Work for the Warmest Part of the Day – If you have a mix of tasks that need to be done, without a specific order, you should look to schedule all tasks that expose workers to the cold weather during the warmest parts of the day.
- Provide Warm Break Areas – A place for your team to sit down, warm up, and dry off during break time helps them to recover and recondition to head back to work. Hot beverages are helpful as well, so if you can supply hot chocolate, hot tea, or hot coffee, your crew will certainly appreciate it. OSHA provides recommendations for a rotating work/warm-up schedule.
- Rotate Workers – If you have crew that can be rotated between tasks, rotate them at break time so that the crews that have been exposed to the cold the worst can rotate out and work on a task that is indoors, or at least sheltered better.
- Use a Buddy System – Some symptoms of cold exposure will go unnoticed by the individual worker, such as clumsiness or distraction. By pairing workers up and asking them to monitor each other for effects of cold stress, you can catch these symptoms early enough to mitigate or avoid long-term issues.
- Provide Proper Engineering Controls – Portable heaters and covering outdoor work areas with wind breaks will lessen the impact on workers. As noted before, wind chill can have a massive impact, so eliminating the wind through temporary tarps and barriers can make a massive difference.
SHOP: Portable Heaters
Using the Right Personal Protection Equipment
Above all, investing in the right winter gear for your workers will go far in the cold weather. Cold attacks the extremities first, so gloves are a must – thermal glove liners are perfect for going underneath existing gloves, while there are numerous heavy-duty thermal gloves on the market.
Plenty of heat escapes though the head, but you also need to ensure that personal protective equipment such as hard hats can be used. That’s where winter liners come in, and there are even full-face versions available that keep the mouth and nose protected. For all-around protection, in terms of temperature as well as on-site visibility, hi-visibility bomber jackets and parka-style jackets will keep your workers warm.
Keeping your workers safe should be your first goal on every job site. Having the right protective equipment, providing information and training, and keeping a keen eye on your team all comes together and ensures everyone gets home safe at night. We always pay attention to mechanical hazards, but sometimes environmental hazards go under the radar. Now that you know the risks of cold exposure and cold stress, get in touch with the team at PowerPak to set your company up with the right cold-weather gear and engineering controls!
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