Working outdoors can be just as tough on the body during the winter as it is during the summer. While hot weather carries the risk of heat stroke, winter weather can result in cold stress. Cold stress is a condition that occurs when a person’s body can no longer maintain its normal temperature, resulting in serious injuries such as permanent tissue damage or death.

It’s important for employees and volunteers to understand the danger of cold stress when working outside in cold, wet or windy conditions to avoid injury and minimize the risk of claims. Here are 3 tips to take the stress out of cold stress during the wintertime:

Learn the Dangers

Cold weather puts stress on the body, which must work harder to maintain temperature. As the surrounding cold air draws heat away, the body works to keep the chest and abdomen warm, shifting blood flow away from arms, legs, hands, feet and exposed skin. These areas of the body cool quickly, which can result in several serious cold stress conditions:

  • Hypothermia happens when normal body temperature drops dangerously low to temperatures of 95° F or less due to extreme cold or lack of protection from the elements.
  • Frostbite happens when deep layers of skin and body tissue freeze in extreme cold weather due to lack of warmth in the affected areas of the body.
  • Trench foot happens when the body shuts down circulation to the feet to prevent loss of heat due to ongoing exposure to cold and wet conditions, since the body loses heat 25 times faster when wet. Trench foot can occur in temperatures as high as 60º F.

Know the Signs of Cold Stress

Serious cold stress risks such as hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot, all have telltale signs that are important to know.

  • Hypothermia symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, inability to stand, dilated pupils, confusion, slurred speech and shivering that may stop as the condition worsens.
  • Frostbite symptoms include numbness, red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin, hard or waxy-looking skin and clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness.
  • Trench foot symptoms include skin redness, swelling, numbness and blisters.

Untreated, cold stress can lead to permanent tissue damage, loss of fingers or toes, and even death. If an employee or volunteer shows signs of cold stress, move them indoors to a warm, dry location. Remove and replace any wet clothing with dry clothing. Seek medical attention if the symptoms do not improve.

Protect Employees and Volunteers from Cold Stress 

To reduce the risk of cold stress injuries, it’s important to take steps to protect employees and volunteers. Follow these tips:

  • Provide Training—Train all employees and volunteers on the dangers, warning signs and steps to take if cold stress is suspected. Make sure everyone knows the conditions that can lead to cold-related injuries and the symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot. Ensure leaders know to move people indoors, stay dry and seek help if symptoms continue to worsen.
  • Schedule Smart—Ensure that employees and volunteers limit their exposure to cold and wet conditions and take short, frequent breaks in a warm dry environment. Designate someone to keep track of breaks and ensure they aren’t skipped.
  • Dress for the Conditions—Encourage employees and volunteers to wear proper clothing to protect against cold, windy or wet conditions, such as hats, gloves and waterproof boots and clothing. Wearing layers is beneficial, but clothing shouldn’t be restrictive as it may inhibit proper blood flow.
  • Watch the Weather—Check the local weather daily for wind chill watches, warnings and advisories and plan accordingly. Consider moving work indoors or rescheduling if temperatures reach extreme levels.

As long as safety procedures are observed, it’s safe to continue work outdoors, even when it’s cold, windy or wet. Cold stress injuries and claims can be minimized as long as employees and volunteers are educated about the risks, symptoms and steps to take in an emergency.