The mercury is approaching season lows, the holidays are over, family reunions are a distant memory and the reality of winter’s presence has finally sunk in. Yes, it’s January. But for many it also means workdays spent in chilly conditions, something which can be uncomfortable and sometimes downright dangerous. This is a guide to recognizing and preventing cold stress.
Cold stress means that first your skin temperature and then your internal body temperature drops due to cold conditions. When your body is unable to keep itself warm, you run the risk of illnesses, injuries and even death.
The risks are more common than you might expect. It is easy to imagine a construction worker or an emergency first responder in snowy regions like the American Midwest, North or Mountain areas, suffering from cold stress. But it can also happen at more southern latitudes where frigid temperatures are not as common. Workers used to a warm climate may not have the right protective equipment or may not recognize the signs of cold stress. Working indoors, in a drafty or intentionally chilled location, can also put you in the risk zone, as can moving between the indoors and outdoors, like a truck driver or baggage handler will often do.
Your body’s top priority is to keep your core warm, so given enough time in cold conditions, it will start shifting the blood flow away from extremities such as hands and feet toward your chest and abdomen. The body parts receiving less blood flow may cool rapidly.
Water and wind worsen the situation. Your body will lose heat 25 times faster if you are immersed in water, with hypothermia becoming a possibility as soon as water temperatures drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The concept of wind chill means factoring in the wind speed, not just the reading on the thermometer (ambient temperature). For example, when air temperature is 40 degrees and wind speed is 35 miles per hour, your body will feel like it is 28 degrees.
The three to watch out for: Hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot
Your normal body temperature is supposed to be about 98.6 degrees. When your body loses heat faster than it can replace it and your core temperature slides below 95 degrees, hypothermia occurs. With less available energy, you will have difficulties thinking clearly and moving your arms and legs—and you might not even realize it.
Early symptoms include confusion, fatigue and shivering. Going someplace warm will help, as will adding layers of warm clothing and eating carbohydrates. Drinking, particularly warm beverages, is a good idea, but stay away from alcohol, as it will only help you heat up your skin, refocusing energy away from your core where you need it most.
When the shivering subsides, the skin starts to turn blue and the pulse and breathing slow. At this point a person enters the advanced stages of hypothermia. If you notice these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
Being affected by frostbite means your skin and underlying tissue literally become frozen. This is most likely going to affect body parts like your hands, feet, nose or cheeks, since blood will evacuate these areas early on. You might experience feelings of numbness or tingling in the area.
The first thing to do is to get somewhere warm. You might want to soak the affected body part in warm water, but remember that frostbite makes you numb, so be careful not to use water hot enough to cause burns.
Trench foot is also called immersion foot and occurs in wet and cold conditions but may happen at temperatures as high as 60 degrees. Since your body does not want to lose heat, it will constrict the blood vessels in cold and wet feet, shutting down blood circulation. If oxygen and nutrients cannot circulate, toxins build up, and the skin tissue begins to die.
When this happens, you may notice that the skin of your feet is reddening or getting blisters, and your legs may cramp or swell. Quickly remove wet socks, dry your feet and seek medical assistance.
How to protect yourself and your workers
Good physical conditioning is a solid starting point, as this will help your body handle the cold. People with a low body weight or a pre-existing health condition, such as high blood pressure, an underactive thyroid, or diabetes, may fare worse than those with a more solid physical build and a clean health sheet.
But choosing the right outfit to keep yourself dry and well insulated goes a long way. Several loose layers of clothing tops one large coat. For inner layers, wool, silk and synthetic materials beat cotton, since they will insulate you even if they get wet. It is important to keep the parts of your body which will lose blood first, such as your face, ears, hands and feet, particularly well protected, and a hat does a great job of preventing body heat from escaping.
If you are an employer or a team leader, make sure your workers can take frequent short breaks somewhere warm and try to schedule outdoor tasks during the warmer parts of the day. Place a heater in any cold indoor areas and provide sweetened, warm beverages. And then there is the well-tried classic of the buddy system—have your employees work in pairs to check up on each another.
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And for those times when you don’t have to be working outside in the cold, cozy up with a nice hot drink in front of the fireplace, the heater or some candles, and enjoy the winter season from the comfort of your home.
This article is based on information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and from Driver’s Alert’s online training course Cold Stress.
About the Author
Eva Nyman grew up in Finland, but has lived in Belgium, France and Hungary. She holds a degree in journalism and communication from the University of Helsinki and has worked as a reporter for ten years. She feeds her fascination with history and current affairs with books and her love of nature with hikes. She’s passionate about traveling, particularly slow journeys, and her dream is to visit every corner of the world.
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