Cold Stress: Avoiding the Hazards of Extreme Cold

Working outdoors or just being outside in cold weather is often unavoidable, but avoiding the hazards associated with sinking temperatures is possible. By knowing the signs and symptoms of cold stress you can protect yourself and keep an eye out for others.

What is Cold Stress?                 

Cold stress varies across different areas of the country. Whenever outside temperatures drop decidedly below normal and wind speeds increase, valuable heat can rapidly leave your body. How cold is too cold? Temperature aside, it’s when the body is unable to warm itself. While it’s common knowledge that freezing temperatures combined with inadequate clothing can cause cold stress, it may surprise some to learn that cold stress can also be brought about by temperatures in the 50s, when coupled with wind and rain.

How to Stay Safe

If you are exposed to extreme cold or work in cold environments, there are many precautionary measures you can take to avoid cold stress and keep yourself and others safe:

  1. Check the Forecast. It’s always a good idea to get a weather report the night before, or in the morning to stay updated on any major temperature changes or inclement weather. Make sure you dress appropriately, and don’t forget to factor in the wind chill.
  2. Come Prepared. Keep a change of clothes with you in case your clothes get damp, or you need extra layers. Also keep a thermos of warm liquid readily available (avoiding caffeine and alcohol), as dehydration can still occur in cold weather.
  3. Gear Up. It’s important to have the right clothing when working in cold environments. Boots and shoes should be waterproof and insulated. Wet clothes will chill the body much faster than dry ones. Remember to layer up in loose-fitting clothing to keep your body insulated; tight clothes can reduce blood circulation to the extremities.
  4. Stay Warm. Up to 40% of body heat is lost when the head is left exposed, so always make sure you have a hat available. Your ears, nose, cheeks, fingers and toes will lose heat the fastest, so cover up as much exposed skin as possible and avoid touching cold surfaces (especially metal) with the bare skin.
  5. Smart Work Practices. Take frequent, short breaks in warm dry shelters and avoid extended exposure to frigid winds. If possible, try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day. Also, try working in pairs to keep an eye out for signs of cold stress.
  6. Know the signs. Working in the cold comes with a unique set of hazards such as hypothermia or frostbite. With proper knowledge, you can better recognize the signs of each:
    • Signs of Frostbite include a sensation of tingling or stinging that disappears after a while with the freezing of the tissue, as well as blueish, pale or waxy skin. Frostbite mostly affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. If you notice any of these signs, get into a warm room, avoid direct heat sources and do not massage the affected area. Seek medical attention if numbness or sustained pain remains during warming, or if blisters develop.
    • Signs of Hypothermia include slow irregular breathing, uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech and memory lapses. Severe hypothermia can be life threatening. If you notice any of these symptoms, get into a warm room immediately and keep dry. Seek medical attention if symptoms worsen.

Following these guidelines can help reduce your chance of cold stress. Safety is not an accident, it’s a plan with built-in procedures to avoid or address accidents quickly and it’s there to protect our greatest resource, our people.

David Jackson Safety Auditor

P: 701.255.7180