With bitterly cold conditions in the Central, Eastern U.S. with snow and ice, workers who are exposed to extreme cold, or work in cold environments, may be at risk for cold stress.
Extreme cold weather is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those without shelter, outdoor workers, and those who work in an area that is poorly insulated or without heat.
Some workers may be required to work outdoors in cold environments and for extended periods, namely, snow cleanup crews, sanitation workers, police officers and emergency response and recovery personnel, like firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Cold stress can be encountered in these types of work environment.
What constitutes cold stress and its effects, can vary across different areas of the country. In regions relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress.
According to NIOSH, when exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia or abnormally low body temperature. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it.
Whenever temperatures drop decidedly below normal and as wind speed increases, heat can more rapidly leave your body. These weather-related conditions may lead to serious health problems.
OSHA answers frequently asked questions that will help workers understand what cold stress is, how it may affect their health and safety, and how it can be prevented.
In summary, the following safety tips will help workers stay safe through these cold conditions:
- Your employer should ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress.
- Monitor your physical condition and that of your coworkers.
- Dress properly for the cold.
- Stay dry in the cold because moisture or dampness, e.g. from sweating, can increase the rate of heat loss from the body.
- Keep extra clothing (including underwear) handy in case you get wet and need to change.
- Drink warm sweetened fluids (no alcohol).
- Use proper engineering controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by your employer.