Extreme cold may not receive the attention that other safety concerns such as automobile accidents or slips, trips and falls get. Still, they are a significant contributor to workplace injuries, illnesses and lost time. In 2018, lost time injuries and accidents resulting from environmental cold increased by almost 143% from 120 in 2017 to 290 in 2018. In 2019, they kept pace at 240 with an additional 110 injuries for contact with cold objects or substances.
One of the most severe dangers of extreme cold is cold stress. Cold stress occurs when the skin temperature, and eventually, internal body temperature, plummets. Air temperature, humidity and wind can all be factors in causing cold stress, so it is essential to pay attention to the wind chill temperature. When workers cannot warm themselves, and no intervention raises body temperature, permanent tissue damage, and even death, can occur. Risk factors for cold stress are exceptionally high for employees who must work outside or work in poorly insulated areas without heat.
Additional risk factors include:
- High winds
- Rapidly dropping temperatures
- Working in regions where it usually is warm but becomes suddenly cold
- Wetness or dampness
- Improper attire (not dressing for the weather conditions)
- Health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
The signs and effects of cold stress
In its earliest stages, cold stress causes shivering and tingling or numbness in the extremities. As it worsens, cold stress may cause impaired coordination and extreme shivering. At its worst, cold stress can lead to hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot, a condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold and dampness.
Tips for keeping workers safe from cold stress
Keeping workers safe from the effects of cold stress is much the same as responding to any other environmental hazard in the workplace. Start first by eliminating or substituting the risk.
Elimination and substitution
Eliminating a risk is always the most effective safety control, and substitution comes a close second. If you can move the work to a different, warmer environment, do so. If the work can wait until the weather warms to perform the necessary tasks, that too will help.
Of course, some work needs to get done, regardless of conditions. Repairs and critical maintenance can’t always wait for a warmer day. There are many engineering controls you can institute to lessen the effects of cold stress on your workers.
Heated warming shelters are one example. Radiant heaters or barriers to shield workers from the wind can also help keep people warm. Consider using insulating material on equipment handles or allowing workers to use insulated gloves or mittens. Medical and environmental thermometers and chemical hot packs are useful additions for first aid kits when workers must work outdoors.
Equipment that reduces drafts and condensation can help forestall cold stress injuries for indoor workers but warming areas should be provided here as well.
Create schedules for outdoor workers that account for both seasonal and hourly temperatures. For example, schedule routine maintenance on outdoor equipment during warmer months. On specific days, schedule outdoor work for the warmest hours of the day. If your workers must remain outside for long periods in cold conditions, consider scheduling more frequent, and perhaps longer, breaks that allow them to go inside or take advantage of warming shelters.
Rotate workers frequently to different tasks and limit activities that force workers to sit or stand for long periods, as this can restrict blood circulation and worsen the effects of cold stress. Instead, have workers switch out regularly and frequently throughout the workday. Consider the addition of relief workers to the lineup to allow for breaks and reduce the physical demands of your existing workers. Hard physical labour can intensify or speed up the effects of extreme cold.
Additional administrative controls could include the creation of a buddy system for your outside workers. Cold stress can worsen and become very serious quickly. Early intervention is often critical to avoiding serious injury or fatality. With a buddy system, each worker has someone dedicated to watching for signs of significant cold stress, allowing for interventions to occur before the worker’s condition grows worse. Always ensure you have medically trained staff on each shift who can intervene and lend immediate assistance in the event of significant cold stress.
Design and communicate a workplace plan for dealing with sudden drops in temperature or increasing wind speeds and the hazards they can create.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
PPE is not as effective as other controls and should be used in conjunction with some of the other methods listed above. Workers should be encouraged to carry, or be provided with, a change of clothing to put on if their clothing becomes wet. At a minimum, workers should also wear:
- Layered clothing, so that air is trapped between the layers and can serve as additional insulation
- Synthetic fabrics as a base layer to protect against moisture
- An outer layer that is both waterproof and wind-resistant — avoid cotton as it gets wet quickly and dries slowly
- Hats or hoods and face coverings or neck warmers if the wind is high
- Insulated and waterproof gloves or mittens
- Insulated and waterproof boots
As they can also be at risk for cold stress, indoor workers should be provided with glove alternatives when working inside cold rooms. These alternatives might include glove liners or fingerless gloves to wear inside plastic gloves.
Training and Education
Train both workers and supervisors to recognize, treat and avoid cold stress. Repeat and update this training regularly, particularly in colder months.
Keep your workers safe
The effects of cold stress on your workers can be far-reaching and can last a lifetime. They’re also almost entirely avoidable if you take the right prevention steps.
Always stay mindful of how to ensure your workers can do their jobs safely and warmly, no matter what the climate.