A wide range of industries place increased emphasis on utilizing cold storage facilities and logistics. In the U.S., cold storage operations enjoyed a market share that exceeded $15.26 billion in 2018. That figure is expected to see a compounded annual growth rate upwards of 3.7 percent through 2025. While year-over-year increases come as a blessing to business owners and workers alike, cold room safety requirements and personal protective equipment (PPE) have never been more important.

A reported 78 percent of cold storage warehouses are at least 20 years old. What proves even more concerning is that more than 30 percent of these warehouses were erected during the 1970s and 1980s. Natural decline and retrofitting make cold storage PPE critical to the health and safety of frontline workers, as well as industry efforts to maintain compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

What is a Cold Storage Warehouse?

Advanced technologies have made cold storage and transporting perishable goods from halfway around the planet an almost standard practice. Many regions have retrofitted former manufacturing plants and leverage refrigerated containers to ensure quality control. The innovations used today have somewhat blurred the traditional definition of a cold storage warehouse.

For example, the idea that a direct-to-consumer outlet would possess a cold storage unit large enough to be considered a small warehouse might seem like an anomaly 20 years ago. These days, we see big box wholesale warehouses offering reduced-priced perishables to shoppers. A significant portion of many of these facilities involves bulk storage that many agree qualify as warehousing. This same premise can be applied to other sectors and niche operations that rely on stockpiling perishable goods and products.

Essentially, a cold storage warehouse is any facility that artificially cools or freezes goods or products to maintain or extend their life. They may involve third-party companies that provide a hub or regional distribution logistics. Many businesses store goods and products at temperatures ranging from below zero to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer’s Covid vaccine required storage at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, highlighting why OSHA cold storage regulations remain mission-critical in warehousing and storage spaces.

What Industries use Cold Storage Warehouses?

Supply chain experts indicate that majority of cold storage warehouses remain outdated, and a relatively low percentage have been constructed since the turn of the 21st Century. Less than 22 percent of cold storage facilities were built from 2000 to 2020. Coupled with increased logistical demand, supply chain analysts anticipate new construction in the coming years and a new workforce that requires education and training about cold room safety requirements. That being said, the following sectors are expected to enjoy steady, or increased cold storage facilities usage in the coming years.

  • Food Processing Plants
  • Produce and Other Perishable Distribution Companies
  • Logistics Companies
  • Luxury Resorts & Large Hotels
  • Flower and Plant Storage
  • Wholesale Outlets that Sell Direct to Consumers
  • Beer & Liquor Distributors
  • Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Distributors
  • Freight Hauling Operations
  • Dairy Product Manufacturers
  • Frozen Vegetable Packing Plants
  • Slaughterhouses & Meat Processing Plants
  • Fishing Fleet Vessels & Seafood Distributors

The growing list of industries that require workers for shifts in frigid temperatures increases the risk that OSHA cold storage regulations, such as the use of cold storage PPE, will go overlooked or misunderstood. As the rise in cold storage positions swells, business professionals will be tasked with applying cold room safety requirements to their type of facility.

Four Classes of Cold Storage Facilities

It’s essential for expanding businesses and people entering the workforce to consider that not all storage facilities are created equal. While OSHA cold storage regulations apply in each space, the inherent risks to employees and preventative cold storage PPE may differ significantly. Beyond the levels of sophistication, these work environments can be segregated into the following four basic types.

  • Coolers: These are widely used for storing perishable foods such as fruits, nuts, and dairy products, among others. Workers can anticipate conducting tasks at temperatures ranging from 32 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Supermarkets, wholesalers, and warehouses used as distribution hubs typically house this level of cold storage.
  • Chill Rooms: It’s not uncommon for operations such as meat-curing plants to leverage spaces that maintain temperatures ranging from 16 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Other businesses that store and distribute foods and products just above or below freezing temperatures may include manufacturing plants and cold rooms in the hospitality sector, among others.
  • Holding Rooms & Freezers: Much of the frozen foods consumers purchase at retail or big box wholesale outlets are routinely stored at temperatures of 5 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Meats, fish, and vegetables are typically transported on refrigerated freight containers housed in cold storage warehouses and onsite retail freezers.
  • Sharp Freezers: Ranked among the coldest environments workers experience, sharp freezers generally store goods, materials, foods, and products at a temperature of zero to -35 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not uncommon for big pharma to have onsite sharp freezers to protect the integrity of medications. This may include development, manufacturing, and storage.

While the varying types of cold storage facilities support a robust supply chain of vital resources, these spaces also pose a health and safety risk. When asking everyday people to spend entire workweeks negotiating frigid temperatures and wide-reaching health risks, following OSHA cold storage regulations remains job one.

What Hazards are Associated with Cold Storage Warehouses & Rooms?

Although the obvious risk to workers stems from prolonged exposure to frigid temperatures, OSHA indicates that other health threats persist as well. When workers gain a position that involves cold storage, many prepare for dealing with low temperatures by wearing thick layers of clothing. That seems a natural way to deal with the cold.

It may come as a surprise that contact with frigid temperatures may not necessarily pose the greatest safety risk. According to OSHA, slips, trips, and falls remain the leading cause of workplace injury and fatality year-over-year. Cold storage facilities increase the likelihood of such accidents due to ice accumulations on floors, ladders, and stairs, among others.

Another cold storage hazard that may seem counterintuitive is fire. Fire remains a significant risk in cold storage warehouses and rooms. These facilities commonly house combustible materials, as well as food. Compounding the danger, facilities that operate below freezing usually do not have sprinkler systems to extinguish a fire. The National Fire Protection Association has highlighted the dangers associated with cold storage and offers numerous examples of massive, unchecked blazes.

Ammonia inhalation continues to pose a clear and present danger to cold storage employees. This chemical is widely used in refrigeration equipment, and its accidental release into confined spaces can prove fatal. Low exposure typically burns a person’s eyes, nose, and throat. Modest exposure can damage someone’s airway or lungs, and high levels often prove deadly.

It’s certainly true that insufficient clothing and warmth breaks from the cold working conditions create health risks as well. Everyday people tend to recognize conditions related to exposure to freezing temperatures such as hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot, among others. But cold storage workers are seeing an increase in a condition commonly referred to a “Cold Stress.”

OSHA indicates that cold stress results from steadily driving down someone’s skin temperature, followed by a reduction in internal organ heat levels. As workers remain exposed to frigid conditions, their core temperature begins to decline. Contributing factors include moisture in the workspace, failure to wear adequate cold storage PPE such as disposable clothing or layers, exhaustion, and underlying health conditions.

Although this workplace danger can damage organs or prove fatal, specialized OSHA cold storage regulations have not been crafted. However, OSHA publishes a Cold Stress Guide that covers risks and urges preventative measures.

What PPE is Recommended for Cold Storage Warehouses?

Like other work environments, essential personal protective clothing remains a basic necessity to complete a shift safely. In many ways, cold storage PPE bears a striking resemblance to those required in the construction and manufacturing sector. The following are cold storage PPE garments workers should have readily available.

  • Clothing: Supervisors and decision-makers would be wise to provide water-resistant and durable disposable protective clothing that zippers tight. Items such as coveralls should provide ample space for warming layers underneath or be adequately insulated.
  • Footwear: Insulated boots that provide secure traction are advised in cold storage rooms and warehouses. Workers can further protect themselves against cold stress, frostbite, and trench foot by using water-resistant shoe covers over socks or footwear.
  • Head Wear: Covering the head with a knitted hat or other item lends protection from frigid temperatures. This, coupled with a moisture-resistant coverall that includes a hood, can deliver significant protection against the cold.
  • Gloves: Too many cold storage facility workers wear wool or cloth gloves to prevent frostbite. When these items come in contact with liquids, ice, or prevalent moisture, they act as a conduit. Protective gloves that deter moisture are advisable.
  • Face Masks: Ammonia inhalation remains a significant concern in cold storage facilities. Certified face masks offer an initial frontline defense against inhalation.

As more people enter industries that rely on cold storage, it’s essential to take practical measures to avoid cold stress conditions. Drinking warm beverages, as well as taking in adequate calories and carbohydrates, generally help the body deal with frigid temperatures. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee tend to reduce bodily defenses against the cold. It’s also crucial to use designated work breaks as an opportunity to warm up.

Aging cold storage facilities and increased demand could create dangerous work environments that affect a worker’s health. That’s why now, more than ever, adherence to OSHA guidelines and cold storage PPE are crucial. If you own or operate a business that uses cold storage, International Enviroguard makes a complete line of personal protective clothing and accessories that meet OSHA standards.