Due to the nature of their work, many employees are required to work in cold environments, sometimes for an extended amount of time. Cold stress is a common threat these employees face. The following outlines the different types of cold stress, their symptoms, and recommended first aid treatment.
What Is Cold Stress?
Working in cold environments draws heat from the body and forces it to work harder to maintain a safe temperature. If the body is unable to warm itself due to extreme cold conditions, cold stress can occur. If cold stress lasts a significant amount of time, it could result in tissue damage or possible death. The factors that contribute to cold stress include the following:
- Cold air temperatures
- High wind speeds
- Damp air
- Contact with cold water or cold surfaces
Factors and effects of cold stress vary depending on the region in which you live. For example, in areas unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for “cold stress.” When temperatures drop significantly below normal and wind speeds increase, the risk of cold stress increases.
Types of Cold Stress
It is important to be familiar with the different types of cold stress, their symptoms, and recommendations for first aid. Some of the main cold stresses include hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.
Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. Symptoms usually begin to show when the core body temperature drops below the normal 98.6°F to around 95°F.
Symptoms: shivering; stomping feet to generate heat; loss of coordination; slurred speech; fumbling with items in the hand; pale and cold skin. If the body temperature continues to fall, these symptoms will worsen and the shivering will stop. The person may be unable to walk or stand. Severe hypothermia will develop if the body temperature falls to around 85°F and the person may become unconscious.
Treatment: in the case of mild hypothermia, move to a warm area and stay active. Remove wet clothes and replace with dry clothes or blankets. Cover the head. Drink a warm (not hot) sugary drink; avoid drinks with caffeine. For more severe cases, follow the above recommendations and contact emergency medical personnel. Place hot packs or water bottles on the person’s head, neck, chest, and groin. Arms and legs should be warmed last. In cases of extreme hypothermia, do not apply external heat—hospital treatment is required.
Frostbite occurs when the skin actually freezes and loses water. Amputation of the frostbitten area may be required in severe cases. Frostbite typically affects the extremities, particularly the hands and feet. Generally, frostbite can occur in temperatures below 30°F. However, wind chill factors can allow frostbite to occur in temperatures that are above freezing.
Symptoms: the affected body part will be cold, tingling, stinging, or aching. Numbness will follow with prolonged exposure. The skin color will turn red, then purple, then white. In severe cases blisters may appear.
Treatment: Move the person to a warm area as soon as possible and wrap the affected areas in a soft cloth. Contact medical personnel. Do not rub or massage the area to warm it, and do not use heat from the stove, fireplace, radiator, heating pads, etc. for warming – the affected areas will be numb and can burn easily. Use body heat to warm the affected areas (i.e. use the heat of an armpit to warm frostbitten fingers) or immerse the affected areas in warm (not hot) water. Unless absolutely necessary, do not allow the person to walk on frostbitten feet or toes as this will increase the tissue damage.
Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, results from prolonged exposure to wet, cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60°F if the feet are persistently wet. This condition occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Trench foot is similar to frost bite but less severe.
Symptoms: tingling, itching, or burning sensation in affected areas. The person may experience leg cramps or swelling. Blisters or ulcers may occur. The affected areas may also turn dark purple, blue, or gray.
Treatment: Remove boots/shoes and wet socks and dry the feet. If possible, soak feet in warm water; then wrap in dry cloth bandages. Have the person drink a warm, sugary drink. Have the person avoid walking, as this may increase the tissue damage.
Share these cold weather tips with your employees to help them stay safe on the job:
- Be familiar with the different types of cold stress conditions, their symptoms, and appropriate first aid treatment.
- Wear appropriate clothing for the weather conditions you will be exposed to. This should include protection for the ears, face, hands, and feet in extremely cold weather.
- Move into warm locations during breaks. Time outside on extremely cold days should be limited as much as possible.
- Carry extra cold weather gear (socks, gloves, hats, coats, change of clothes, etc.) as well as a thermos of hot liquid.
- Include a thermometer and hot packs in your first aid kit.
- Pay attention to your own physical condition and that of your coworkers.