Working in a cold environment can put anyone at risk of cold stress. Some jobs may require workers to be outdoors in cold environments and for extended periods of time. Snow cleanup crews, sanitation workers, emergency personnel, and other workers commonly find themselves working in cold outdoor environments.
In this guide, we’re sharing strategies from OSHA’s Emergency Preparedness Guide for managing cold stress on the job.
What is Cold Stress?
Extreme cold and its effects vary in different regions. In areas where there isn’t a lot of winter weather, temperatures that are near freezing may be considered “extreme cold.” When you’re in a cold environment, your body must work overtime to maintain its temperature. When temperatures are below normal and wind speed increases, your body can lose heat rapidly. Cold stress happens when the skin temperature and internal body temperature decrease. It can lead to major health repercussions, including tissue damage and even death.
Risk factors for cold stress include:
- Improper gear/clothing
- Health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and hypothyroidism
Hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblain are common injuries caused by cold weather.
Preventing Cold Stress at Work
OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard for working in cold environments. However, employers are required to provide work and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, which includes cold stress, which are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Employees need to be trained on the hazards of the work and which safety measures to use to protect their health and safety.
Workers exposed to cold environments should learn how to prevent and recognize cold stress illnesses and injuries. They also need to be trained in how to apply first aid treatment. Employers can help prevent dehydration in cold weather by providing plenty of warm sweetened liquids for workers. Consider assigning a buddy system so pairs can monitor each other for signs of cold stress on the job. Provide frequent breaks in warm areas and reduce the physical demands of workers where possible.
Dressing properly for the weather and environment is essential for preventing cold stress. Layers of loose fitting clothing can wick moisture from the body, provide insulation, and allow some ventilation to prevent overheating. Wearing a hat or hood can keep your whole body warmer. Avoid wearing wet clothes; keep extra socks, gloves, hats, etc. as well as a change of clothing on hand in case your clothing gets wet.