Winter Weather Safety: Working Outside in Cold Weather

Many jobs require workers to be outside when temperatures are low. Poor weather conditions can lead to severe health problems, such as frostbite or hypothermia. Precipitation and wind are also hazards you need to be aware of. Cold, wet, windy weather can be extremely hazardous even if temperatures are not below freezing. Being aware of your surroundings and taking simple precautions can help you avoid such dangerous illnesses as frostbite and hypothermia. However, it’s important to know the signs of cold stress to look for in yourself or a fellow employee when working outside in cold temperatures.

Frostbite

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is a medical condition that occurs when skin and body tissues begin to freeze due to exposure to cold temperatures. Your extremities, such as fingers, toes, nose and ears, are most at risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?

One of the first signs of frostbite is a tingling sensation similar to pins and needles. Numbness or pain may follow. The skin may begin to look pale or waxy and become hard.

What should you do?

  • Move the person to a warm, dry area and remove any wet or tight clothing or jewelry.
  • Do not rub the affected area. This could cause damage to the tissues.
  • Place the affected limb(s) in a warm water bath. Do not make the water hot; tissues should be warmed slowly.
  • Do not pour running water directly on the area. This may warm tissues too fast and cause more damage.
  • After normal feeling has returned, lightly dry and cover the affected areas to keep them warm.
  • Seek medical attention to ensure no further damage has been done.

Hypothermia

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature drops to or below 95 degrees. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Hypothermia can happen when someone has been exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time or extremely cold temperatures for a short period of time. It can also occur after spending a prolonged time in cold water, even if temperatures are not that cold. As body temperature lowers, metabolism slows, which slows down normal body processes. Extremely low body temperature is very serious and can be fatal.

What are the signs and symptoms of hypothermia?

Uncontrollable shivering, cold, bluish skin (especially the lips and fingers), slurred speech, uncoordinated movements, exhaustion, irritability, and irrational behavior are all warning signs of hypothermia.

What should you do?

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Move the person to a warm, dry area.
  • Remove any wet clothing and wrap the person in warm, dry clothing or blankets.
  • Give the person warm sugar water to drink, such as sports drinks. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcoholic beverages.
  • DO NOT place them in a warm water bath or rub their limbs. This could stop the heart.
  • Try to keep the person awake if possible.
  • Have the person move their arms and legs to create muscle heat.

General Precautions to Take When Working in Cold Weather

  • Take frequent, short breaks in a dry area to allow your body to warm up.
  • Layer loose clothing to adjust to changing temperatures. Several layers of light clothing are better than one bulky layer of clothes.
  • Wear boots that are insulated and waterproof.
  • Try to stay as dry as possible. Wear a hat and gloves that will keep water away from the skin.
  • Use the buddy system; always work in pairs or groups. Be aware of any symptoms your co-workers may be exhibiting.
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • The extremities are most affected in cold weather so be sure to cover areas such as fingers, toes, nose and ears.
  • Keep extra shirts, socks, blankets, gloves, hats, etc. nearby when working in cold weather. If any of your clothing gets wet, try to change it as soon as possible.
  • All employees should be trained in the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia as well as proper first-aid. They should also be trained in the precautions that should be taken when working outside in cold weather.

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