Cold Weather Hazards

As the temperatures drop, the risk of weather-related health hazards for those who work outdoors increases. Construction workers, who are exposed to the elements for long hours, are especially vulnerable. Two of the most common cold-weather hazards for outdoor workers are frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite occurs when the body can’t get enough heat to the extremities and those tissues freeze.  Aside from the obvious, such as fingers and toes, areas on the head can be particularly vulnerable such as the nose, ears, and cheeks. In advanced cases, frostbite can cause permanent tissue damage and loss of movement to the body part. In very advanced cases, loss of consciousness and cessation of breathing occur.  

Hypothermia arises when exposure to cold air for a prolonged period of time causes the body temperature to drop dangerously low. And like frostbite, this condition can also be fatal.

Fortunately, identifying symptoms and taking precautions greatly reduces the risk of long-term problems arising from exposure to the cold.  

It's very important to know the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia so that you can do something before it's too late.

Symptoms of frostbite include:
-Burning, tingling or stinging
-Skin that is white or grayish yellow which can turn to reddish violet or black
-Blistering skin
It’s important to take action at the first sign of numbness to ensure that symptoms do not progress.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:
-A feeling of cold, and then pain in the extremities
-Stiffness or numbness – particularly in the legs, arms and neck
-Shivering (which is the body’s way of raising its temperature)
-Poor coordination, impaired speech, drowsiness
Surprisingly, hypothermia can occur even when temperatures are above freezing, especially if there are windy conditions and clothing is damp.

Safety Tips for Exposure to Cold-Weather Conditions:
1) Wear PPE - the most significant precaution to reducing cold stress is wearing the proper personal protection clothing.  Winter liners, especially those with mouth guards are useful in protecting the areas of the head vulnerable to frostbite. Adequate protection of the feet and hands is also critical.

2) Maintain proper fluid intake – surprisingly, thirst is suppressed in cold conditions and dehydration can set in.  Be sure to drink plenty of fluids – a sweet, warm beverage is best.

3) Structure the work environment – When possible, protect work areas from winds and drafts. Also cover equipment handles with insulating materials. If the environment permits, use area heaters.

4) Bump up calorie intake – Workers wearing heavy clothing in a cold environment expend up to 10-15 percent more calories than average.  Replacing them is an important component of fighting the cold.

5) Use “warm-up” breaks – Building warm-up breaks into the work schedule is critical to restore body temperature since once the body begins to lose heat, it has to work harder to keep warm and eventually, it becomes impossible for the body to generate the necessary heat.

6) Work in pairs – using a buddy system enables a partner to obtain help if the other becomes immobilized from the cold.