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Cold Stress for Outdoor Workers

Steve Wagner

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold outside. Extremely cold. There’s snow on the ground, the temperatures have been well below freezing (with some in the negatives), and the precipitation continues to fall and accumulate.

Cold Stress occurs when the body becomes unable to warm itself. This can happen in freezing temperatures, but it can also happen if exposed to wind chills, or when the body becomes wet, even when temperatures are in the 50s.

When skin is exposed to cold-weather conditions, you increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Your body will naturally work hard to keep itself warm, but over time, the blood in your body will begin to flow more slowly to the outer extremities (in an effort to keep your core warm) and any skin exposed on those areas becomes vulnerable to cold stress.

Avoiding these conditions may be impossible at times if you are an emergency response worker, or you are employed in any kind of technical job (auto repair, electrical/heating work, road maintenance/construction work) but maintaining safety on the job is of utmost importance any time the temperatures become chilly. If you know you will be out in adverse weather conditions for any length of time, here are a few things you can do to protect your body from cold stress:

  • Dress in several loose-fitting layers. Layering your clothing (with loose-fitting items) allows more air to be trapped around your body, holding in more heat. It also allows you to add/remove clothing as the temperature changes, or if some layers become wet.
  • Have at least one layer of waterproof clothing. Make sure that among your loose-fitting layers, there are waterproof items to protect your skin and protect at least some of your other clothing from getting wet.
  • Take breaks to get warm. If you have a shelter to visit, do so frequently. Your body will work hard to warm itself, especially if you are exerting yourself physically, but give your system a break and recharge somewhere warm. If you can, go indoors for a few minutes or at least get out of the wind/rain/snow.
  • Stay hydrated. It is important, no matter how cold it is, to keep your body hydrated. Studies have shown that our bodies lose a substantial amount of fluids during the cold weather, mostly due to respiratory fluid loss through breathing. You are actually more likely to become dehydrated while being active in the winter, than you are while being active in the summer.

If your employer is not helpful in maintaining a safe working environment during cold-weather months, you may be at an increased risk for injury. If you witness unsafe working conditions, OSHA has a safe hotline you can call to report unsafe working conditions, without any repercussions on yourself.

If you have been injured due to unsafe working environments, give the work injury lawyers at Wagner Reese a call for more information. We can assist you in your recovery and help you get the compensation you deserve for your injuries!


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