Prolonged exposure to freezing or cold temperatures may cause serious health problems such as trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia. In extreme cases, including cold water immersion, exposure can lead to death. Danger signs include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue and confused behavior.
Cold temperatures and increased wind speed (wind chill), cause heat to leave the body at an increasing rate, putting workers at risk of cold stress. Anyone working in the cold may be at risk, e.g., workers in freezers, outdoor agriculture and construction. The following information provides an overview of the types of cold stress and prevention methods as adapted from OSHA.
Common Types of Cold Stress
- Normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to 95°F or less.
- Mild Symptoms: alert but shivering.
- Moderate to Severe Symptoms: shivering stops; confusion; slurred speech; heart rate/breathing slow; loss of consciousness; death.
- For these symptoms, call 911 immediately and move worker to warm place. Change to dry clothes and cover body with blankets or something to block the cold (cover head & neck but NOT the face).
- Body tissues freeze, e.g., hands and feet. Can occur at temperatures above freezing, due to wind chill. May result in amputation.
- Symptoms: numbness, reddened skin develops gray/white patches, feels firm/hard, and may blister.
- For these symptoms: follow above recommendations for Hypothermia.
- Do no rub frostbitten area and avoid walking on frostbitten feet.
- Do not break blisters or apply water, but loosely cover and protect the area from contact.
- Do not rewarm the area unless directed to do so by medical personnel.
Trench Foot (also known as Immersion Foot)
- Non-freezing injury to the foot, caused by lengthy exposure to wet and cold environment. Can occur at air temperature as high as 60°F, if feet are constantly wet.
- Symptoms: redness, swelling, numbness, and blisters.
- For these symptoms: call 911 and remove wet shoes/socks; air dry (in warm area) and keep affected feet elevated and avoid walking
- Dressing improperly, wet clothing/skin, and exhaustion.
How to Protect Yourself and Others
- Know the symptoms; monitor yourself and co-workers.
- Drink warm, sweetened fluids (no alcohol).
- Dress properly.
- Layers of loose-fitting, insulating clothes
- Insulated jacket, gloves, and a hat (waterproof, if necessary)
- Insulated and waterproof boots
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