Strategies to Help Outdoor Workers Avoid “Cold Stress” in the Winter Months

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Strategies to Help Outdoor Workers Avoid “Cold Stress” in the Winter Months

It’s only November, and the National Weather Service has already issued winter storm alerts for the Intermountain West. While stormy weather means hot chocolate and cozy evenings for some, for those who spend long hours outside working in industries such as construction, utilities, building maintenance, and public safety, colder temperatures pose new hazards to their well-being.

 Arguably the trickiest cold-related danger in the workplace is something called “cold stress.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) describes this as a condition in which a person has been exposed to cold for so long that they can no longer maintain their internal body temperature. When this happens, “the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result.” Yikes!

 Cold stress is a tricky condition because, unless someone knows how to recognize the symptoms, and unless they consistently monitor themselves and their co-workers for these symptoms, it is easy to miss until the damage has been done.

 Types of cold stress include trench foot, which is the result of exposure to cold and wet conditions; frostbite, which is the freezing of skin and tissues and can cause permanent damage; and most serious, hypothermia, a systemic condition in which a person’s temperature drops below 95 degrees and affects their ability to think clearly. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has an excellent resource on how to identify and treat each of these conditions.

 In addition to knowing how to recognize cold stress, there are some pretty straightforward engineering controls that employers can provide to prevent its onset. For example, they can erect a simple structure that shields work areas from wind, thus dampening the wind chill effect. They can provide radiant heaters for smaller areas, as well as heated shelters where their workers can warm up during their breaks. Providing warm, sweetened liquids to their workers helps them maintain their heat and prevents them from becoming dehydrated. Even something as simple as wrapping metal tool handles with an insulating material can help, by putting a barrier between their workers and ice-cold metal.

 Not surprisingly, what workers wear while they work is essential to preventing cold stress. OSHA recommends three layers of loose-fitting clothing, noting that multiple layers provide better insulation than a single bulky layer. Hats and hoods reduce heat loss, face masks protect cheeks and noses from frostbite, as do insulated gloves and waterproof work boots. OSHA notes that any wet clothes, from either sweat or the elements, should be changed immediately, since damp clothing increases heat loss.

 With colder weather ahead, it is imperative that any business that employs outdoor workers reviews its plans for preventing cold stress. As one of the leading safety providers in the Intermountain West, Industrial Supply is here to help. Please contact Cody Naylor, Industrial Supply Company’s Safety Sales Manager, at (385) 910-8164 or to learn more about how we can help you implement a winter preparedness plan that is tailored to your needs.

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