Kapena O’Neal

Dec. 21 marks the first day of winter: shorter days, longer nights and colder temperatures. For those who find themselves working outdoors during the winter months, it can become uncomfortable and even miserable, but, most importantly, it can become dangerous.

Some of the safety hazards associated with winter work are well known. Ice, leaves, and wet weather can increase the risk of slips and falls. Strong winds increase the likelihood of accidents when making lifts, working at heights, or even walking. These dangers are significant, and while watching someone slip and fall on ice may make viewers of TikTok chuckle, there is another risk to the health and safety of our workers that should never be overlooked – cold stress.

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We know the cold winter months present a number of health risks to those engaging in outside work. The body must work harder in order to maintain its optimum temperature whenever exposed to the cold. Heat leaves the body more rapidly when the outside temperatures drop, driving down the body’s core temperatures and leading to serious health problems.

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The most common cold weather-related illnesses and injuries, or “cold stress,” are hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot:

  • Hypothermia: the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature; the body has used its stored energy and can no longer produce heat
    – Early symptoms include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination, confusion, or disorientation.
  • Frostbite: an injury to body tissue caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers, or toes
    – Warning signs include numbness or tingling, stinging, or pain on or near the affected body part
  • Trench foot: a painful condition of the feet caused by long immersion in cold water or mud marked by blackening and death of surface tissue
    – Symptoms include swelling, numbness, heavy feeling in the foot, and itchy sensations
  • While there are great risks associated with working in cold weather, there are several precautions that can be taken to ensure your health is protected.

Wear appropriate clothing:

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  • Wear several layers of warm, loose clothing. Layers provide better insulation. Remember to always wear your hi-vis PPE on the outermost layer.
  • Choose the best fabrics such as wool, silk, and synthetic fibers since they retain body heat even when wet.
  • Protect your extremities. The ears, face, hands and feet are extremely vulnerable because they tend to lose heat rapidly and contain vital organs.
  • Wear insulated, waterproof boots.

Ensure a healthy diet:

  • Eating balanced meals and ensuring adequate liquid intake helps to maintain body heat and prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid caffeine as it can dilute your blood vessels, making it easier to lose body heat. It also increases urine production, contributing to dehydration.
  • Hot beverages are a great option to aid in keeping you warm.

Avoid prolonged exposure to the elements:

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  • Take 10-minute breaks every two hours to warm your body temperature.
  • Take breaks in warm locations such as a vehicle or sheltered area.

Work in pairs:

  • Monitor your physical condition and keep an eye on your coworkers.
  • Since cold stress and cold-related illnesses can alter a person’s self-awareness, always use the buddy system.

Be aware:

  • Pay attention to the warning signs and symptoms.
  • Report signs and symptoms of cold-related illnesses and injuries immediately to your supervisor or medical personnel.

It takes a tough person to get out in the cold weather every day and work hard during the winter months. While it may not be pleasant, we can always do our best to stay safe. Remember: Be prepared and be aware.

Kapena O’Neal is the safety manager at Midwest Mole Inc.