Trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia are various types of cold stress that can cause death or other serious injuries in the working environment. As an employer, it is your duty to provide your workers with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards, including winter weather related hazards like cold stress. To combat cold stress, employers must recognize the hazards, understand the signs and symptoms, plan accordingly, and educate your employees.
Recognizing the hazards
A cold environment causes the body to stress to maintain its core temperature of 98.6 degrees. There are four factors that can contribute to cold stress: cold temperatures; high winds; dampness; and cold water. While freezing conditions with improper clothing can lead to cold stress, so can temperatures in the 50’s when combined with wind and/or rain.
Understanding the signs and symptoms
Trench foot is an injury to the feet that is caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Symptoms of trench foot may include reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, cramps, numbness, and blisters.
Frostbite is permanent damage to the body caused by the freezing of skin and tissues. Symptoms of frostbite may include reddened skin that develops gray/white patches, tingling, aching, a loss of feeling, firm/hard skin and tissue, and blisters.
Hypothermia occurs when the body drops to less than 95 degrees due to cold, wet, and/or windy conditions. Symptoms of hypothermia may include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, a slow heart rate, slow breathing, loss of consciousness, and in some cases, death.
While there is no OSHA requirement that employers provide workers with ordinary clothing solely for the protection from weather (e.g., coats, gloves, booths, hats), many employers do provide workers with appropriate gear and winter weather clothing as a preventative measure. Here are some additional measures that employers can take to plan against the development of cold stress:
- Schedule maintenance jobs for warmer months
- Monitor the weather and schedule jobs that expose workers to cold weather to the warmest part of the day
- Use relief workers
- Provide more frequent breaks and a warm break area
- Provide warm, sugary drinks
- Provide heat packs
- Monitor workers for cold stress
Educate your employees
Before the hazards contributing to cold stress are present, dealership employees should be provided with education about what to wear, how to act, and what to look for, such as:
- The signs of symptoms of cold stress
- Wearing layers that will keep moisture away from the body and prevent overheating
- Avoiding wearing tight clothing that may reduce blood circulation
- Wearing a knit mask, a hat that cover the ears, and insulated and water-resistant gloves and boots
- Keeping an extra set of dry clothing
- Avoiding overheating
- Drinking warm sweetened fluid
- Taking breaks in a warm break area
- Monitoring their physical condition
- Using a buddy system to keep out an eye for each other and the signs of cold stress