Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) – Winter precipitation, along with strong winds are the perfect recipe for cold stress. Trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia are among the types of cold stress that can result in serious injury or even death to those affected. While there is no specific OSHA standard for protecting workers from cold weather-related injuries and illnesses, employers are strongly advised to implement a preventive program. OSHA advises that “employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, including winter weather related hazards, which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to them.”
A cold-related illness and injury prevention program should include engineering controls, established work/rest schedules, training about the hazards of working in cold environments and providing appropriate cold-weather gear, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Employees who work inside as well as outdoors can be at risk. Workers more likely to experience cold stress include those in services, transportation, agriculture, first responders, and construction, among others.
Cold stress occurs when the skin temperature decreases, eventually reducing the internal body temperature until the body cannot warm itself. An increase in wind speed causes the cold air temperature to feel even colder, which increases the risk of cold stress. Its effects vary in different areas.
“In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for ‘cold stress,’” according to NIOSH. “Increased wind speed also causes heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness, even from body sweat, also facilitates heat loss from the body.”
Employers are advised to understand and stay abreast of the wind chill temperatures at their worksites. The term describes the rate of heat loss from the body as a result of the combined effect of low air temperature and wind speed. For example, an air temperature of 40°F combined with a wind speed of 35MPH results in a wind chill temperature of 28°F. The National Weather Service provides an online tool to determine the wind chill temperature.
Workers who are most vulnerable to cold stress are those who have experienced frostbite previously, sedentary workers and employees with poor circulation. Cold-related conditions can worsen musculoskeletal injuries and vascular disorders. In addition to cold stress, workers in cold, damp conditions may experience a decline in cognitive function and dexterity.
Workers should be trained to recognize the symptoms of cold stress, prevent it where possible and know when and how to call for additional medical assistance.
Engineering controls include measures such as providing radiant heaters to warm up outside workplaces such as security stations. Worksites should also shield workers from drafts or strong winds. Additional engineering controls can be used for other types of cold-weather related hazards, such as aerial lifts or ladders for safely applying de-icing materials to roofs to protect workers from slipping.
Workers who are new and those returning after time away from work should be acclimatized into the cold environment. Their workloads should be gradually increased with more frequent breaks in warm areas so they can build up a tolerance for the weather.
Additional safe work practices for employers to implement may include:
- Providing workers with the proper tools and equipment to do their jobs
- Developing work plans that identify potential hazards and the safety measures that will be used for protection
- Scheduling maintenance and repair jobs for warmer months
- Scheduling jobs that expose workers to the cold weather in the warmest part of the day
- Avoiding exposure to extremely cold temperatures when possible
- Limiting the amount of time spent outdoors on extremely cold days
- Using relief workers to assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs
- Providing warm, non-alcoholic liquids
- Monitoring workers who are at risk of cold stress
- Monitoring the weather conditions during a winter storm, having a reliable means of communicating with workers and being able to stop work or evacuate when necessary
- Having a means of communicating with workers, especially in remote areas