Working in cold weather affects people differently, but excess exposure can result in illness, injury, and loss of life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that workplace fatalities increase upwards of 12 percent during winter due to cold stress.But what is particularly concerning revolves around the fact that not all these workplace deaths occurred in sub-freezing conditions.

Researchers have determined that human adaptability allows us to handle cold weather consistent with our environment. In other words, someone performing an outdoor task in Alaska is more likely to handle 32-degree weather than someone from a tropical island. Those are reasons why understanding the impact of working in frigid temperatures and following OSHA cold weather safety guidelines are critical.

What Makes Cold Weather Dangerous to Workers?

Health and safety organizations indicate that cold stress has a significant impact on worker illness and injury. Employees already face cold weather hazards at work, such as black ice and snow, in many regions. Companies that hire people to perform outdoor tasks must be keenly aware of what constitutes “cold weather” for their employees and ways to offset its impact. It’s also essential to understand there are contributing factors beyond a thermometer reading.

How the Cold Affects Workers

When health and safety experts discuss the effects of adversely low temperatures on workers, conversations revolve around the term “cold stress.” This condition involves being exposed to abnormally cold temperatures based on someone’s location. People who live and work in Canada, for example, might consider below-freezing conditions cold. By that same token, weather around 40 degrees could lead to cold stress in traditionally warm regions like Texas in the US.

Cold stress occurs when susceptible people are exposed to temperature drops. Contributing factors such as moisture, sweat, and wind can result in our body’s external temperature also dropping. As our protective systems respond, an enormous amount of energy is consumed to combat skin cooling. Eventually, we utilize too much energy, and our internal organs feel the brunt of frigid weather.

Other factors that affect who and how quickly people suffer cold stress include physical fitness, body type, pre-existing conditions, and clothing. It’s not uncommon for workers to forego personal protective equipment and disposable safety clothing to add layers. Failure to adorn PPE often violates OSHA regulations and heightens the risk of injury, illness, and workplace fatalities.

Conditions Associated with Cold Stress

The importance of a company policy that educates workers and supervisors about the short- and long-term effects of working in cold temperatures cannot be understated. These and other safety rules are designed to help team members avoid risks associated with frigid temperatures and recognize the telltale signs of cold stress conditions, such as the following.

  • Trench Foot: Prolonged foot exposure to damp, cold conditions lead to skin redness, tingling, numbness, discomfort, swelling, blistering, cramps, internal bleeding, and Gangrene. Trench foot can occur at as high as 60 °F.
  • Frostbite: When the skin freezes, frostbite can result in permanent damage.This condition results from exposure to freezing temperatures. Workers with blood flow and cardiovascular disease are more likely to be impacted. Telltale signs include red skin with gray or white patches, blisters, aches, loss of feeling, and tingling. Frostbite tends to affect exposed ears, nose, fingers, and toes.
  • Chilblains: This painful inflammation of blood vessels has been attributed to the long-term effects of working in cold temperatures. After repeated exposure to conditions ranging from 32°F or lower to 60°F, the skin becomes red, itchy, and blisters may appear. In severe cases, ulceration can occur.
  • Hypothermia: When the body’s internal temperature dips from the normal average of 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees or lower, rapid heat loss occurs. Although hypothermia is usually linked to below-freezing conditions, it’s possible for workers to suffer this ailment above 40°F, particularly if they are wet or sweating while on task. Shivering is usually the first noticeable symptom of hypothermia.

Unprotected exposure to cold, wet conditions also increases migraine headaches, common colds, and the risk of heart attack. People who work outdoors during the winter months, as well as those in refrigerated spaces, must remain vigilant about this safety hazard.

Occupations that Put Workers at Risk of Cold Weather-Related Illnesses/Injuries

A greater number of workers are placed in harm’s way than many realize. Occupations that lend themselves to the outdoors do not necessarily have to drop to 32 degrees to cause cold stress. These are jobs that may put people at unnecessary risk of the long-term effects of working in cold temperatures.

  • Baggage Handling
  • Construction
  • Delivery Drivers
  • Farming and Ranching
  • Firefighters and EMTs
  • Landscaping
  • Oil and Gas Extraction and Processing
  • Park Rangers
  • Plant and Warehouse Workers
  • Police Patrol Officers
  • Powerline Repair and Installation
  • Residential and Commercial Roofing

Employees who handle frozen and refrigerated goods face exposure to risky temperatures. That’s why cold weather safety tips for outdoor workers also apply to those in controlled environments.

Cold Weather Work Safety Tips & PPE

Protective gear and clothing must always be worn when navigating hazardous environments. When those conditions include the possibility of succumbing to cold stress, employers would be well-served to select suitable protective equipment and disposable clothing that fits over layers and improves windbreak. These are strategies consistent with OSHA cold weather safety measures.

  • General Clothing: Multiple layers are advisable because they typically offer greater protection than one thick garment. Bringing several layers to a job site also allows employees to add a layer as the sun sets, or strip off layers when sweating. Inner layers should “wick” away sweat and moisture. The outer layer should be a type of protective clothing that provides windbreak and insulation.
  • Head & Neck: Cold stress on the head and neck can result in stiffness, cramping, and migraine headaches. Knit hats and scarves are considered excellent items to keep the head and neck reasonably warm. It’s also prudent to wear protective clothing that can be accessorized with a hood over these items.
  • Face & Ears: Although some employees shrug off red cheeks and ears when operating outdoors, the long-term effects of working in cold temperatures are substantial. Ongoing exposure can result in growths, sometimes referred to as “swimmer’s ear.” Without earmuffs and faceguards to stave off wind chill, workers can suffer hearing loss.
  • Arms & Legs: The extremities are susceptible to harsh weather conditions and call for long-sleeved undergarments as well as leg insulators. When the arms and legs are negatively impacted by frigid conditions, the body’s normal blood flow is generally affected. This can exacerbate cold stress symptoms and conditions. Protective coveralls comprised of windbreak material improve warmth and comfort.
  • Fingers & Toes: Frostbite commonly strikes the fingers and toes, which is why insulated gloves, thermal socks, and shoe coverings are essential. When unchecked, extreme frostbite conditions can require an amputation.

Employers can also do their part by crafting cold weather safety policies and addressing daily conditions. Companies that place restrictions on how long employees can remain outdoors at specified temperatures or time tasks in refrigerated spaces increase safety and cold stress awareness. Providing warm break rooms, beverages, and essential tools to maintain safe temperatures reduces the likelihood of someone falling ill or losing their lives.

According to the National Health Statistics Report, more than twice as many people die from exposure to the cold than heat. That’s why it’s critical to follow OSHA protective equipment and clothing mandates. Personal protective clothing that helps insulate workers and reduces the impact of wind improves health and safety.