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     Preparing Outside Workers to Battle the Cold

How do you beat the cold when you work outside? Aside from several layers of protective, dry, clothing, and a healthy mix of physical activity, regular warm up periods can help you work safely in, and defend yourself from the cold.
Cold workers are more prone to injury because the temperature impacts their performance of complex mental tasks and reduces the sensitivity and dexterity of their fingers. As well, the cold carries its own potentially lethal side effects. It is critical that workers and supervisors know the symptoms of over exposure to cold, proper clothing habits, safe work practices, physical fitness requirements for work in cold, and emergency procedures in the event of cold injury. Information is the first defense!

To stay safe and dry, workers must insulate themselves against air temperature, air movement (wind speed), and humidity (wetness). A key counter measure is layered clothing. Done right, it will regulate the amount of heat and perspiration generated and lost while on the job. If the work pace is too fast or if the clothing is not properly selected, excessive sweating may occur and the clothing next to the body will become wet. The moisture will dramatically drop the insulation value of the clothing and increase the risk for cold injuries.

Low body temperature (hypothermia) is the most common cold injury. Prolonged exposure to the cold causes the body to lose energy faster than it is produced, dropping body temperature. Warning signs are numbness, stiffness, drowsiness, poor coordination and sometimes even a lack of desire to get out of the cold. If any symptoms of hypothermia are present, immediately call for emergency assistance (911).

Get the victim out of the cold and cover him or her with warm blankets. If you are unable to get indoors, get the person out of the wind, use a blanket to provide insulation from the cold ground and cover the person's head and neck to help retain body heat. Once inside, remove and replace any wet or constricting clothes with dry clothing. Warm the person using your own body heat if necessary and apply warm compresses to the neck, chest wall, and groin. Stay with the person until medical help arrives.

Frostbite is the second most common cold injury. Noses, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes are most often affected. The freezing constricts blood vessels, which impair blood flow and may cause permanent tissue damage. If only the skin and underlying tissues are damaged, recovery may be complete. However, if blood vessels are affected, the damage is permanent and could result in the amputation of the affected part.

Seek medical attention. If possible, move the victim to a warm area. Give the victim warm drinks to replace lost fluids. Remove any wet clothing and loosen constricting jewelry that may restrict circulation. Loosely cover the affected area with a sterile dressing (keeping fingers or toes separated) and quickly transport the victim to an emergency care facility. DO NOT attempt to rewarm the affected area on site (but do try to stop the area from becoming any colder). Without the proper facilities, tissue that has been warmed may refreeze and cause more damage. DO NOT rub area or apply dry heat and DO NOT allow the victim to drink alcohol or smoke.

Prevention is the best way to deal with cold stress. Some do’s and don’ts to help stay safe in a cold environment include:

DO NOT use alcohol, nicotine or other drugs that may affect blood flow.
DO NOT expose yourself to cold temperatures after a recent shower or bath.

Dress in multiple layers of loose, dry, protective clothing.
Ensure your hands, feet, face, head and eyes are covered.
Keep moving.
Take regular breaks from the cold in warm places.
Eat properly and frequently to maintain body heat and prevent dehydration.

But when is it just simply too cold to work? There are no legislated limits in Canada. But common sense, and the suggested guidelines outlined in the Threshold Limit Values For Cold Stress – Work/Warm-up Schedule, should provide sound advice.

The Threshold Limit Values for cold stress were developed by the Saskatchewan Department of Labour and later adopted by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

Learn more about working in cold environments and view the Threshold Limit Values.

Click here for more on health effects and first aid.

Learn more about CCOHS’ Cold Weather Workers Safety Guide

February 2004

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