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Every day, and with every step, we expose our feet to potential physical injury. Foot problems can occur in almost any workplace and under a wide variety of working conditions. In Canada, the winter introduces unique hazards. Canadian Standards Association (CSA) approved safety footwear provides protection from workplace hazards such as crushes, burns and punctures, but during the colder months there are cold weather afflictions that can also have painful and sometimes serious consequences. Learn more about the harm that working in cold weather can cause your feet.
Exposure to cold (not just cold feet)
During the winter, working at outdoor jobs such as logging, hydro line work or fishing can mean working in freezing temperatures, or in low temperature wet conditions, which can put feet at risk of frostbite, chilblains, and trench foot.
Frostbite is caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. First your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.
Symptoms of frostbite include: reduced blood flow to hands and feet, numbness or a loss of feeling, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale, waxy skin. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and severe cases can lead to amputation.
Repeated exposure to cold, but not freezing, air can result in chilblains, the painful inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin. Chilblains can cause itching, red patches, swelling, and blistering on your feet and hands.
Chilblains usually clear up within one to three weeks, especially if the weather gets warmer or exposure stops. Chilblains don't usually result in permanent injury. But the condition can lead to infection, which may cause severe damage if left untreated.
Trench foot is an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 15 degrees Celsius if the feet are constantly wet. Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Therefore, to prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients, and due to the buildup of toxins.
Symptoms of trench foot include: reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin, and gangrene (the foot may turn dark purple, blue, or gray).
Wearing appropriate footwear and socks is an important step in protecting the feet from cold.
“Normal” protective footwear is not designed for cold weather while “insulated” footwear may give little temperature protection in the sole, where there is no insulation. Loss of heat through steel toe caps (commonly blamed for increased heat loss) is insignificant.
Insulating the legs by wearing thermal undergarments, wearing insulating overshoes over work footwear, and wearing insulating muffs around the ankles and over the top of the footwear can help provide foot protection against cold weather.
Felt-lined, rubber bottomed, leather-topped boots with removable felt insoles are best suited for heavy work in cold since leather is porous, allowing the boots to breathe and perspiration to evaporate. Leather boots can be waterproofed with products that do not block the pores in the leather.
For work that involves standing in water or slush, waterproof boots must be worn. However, while these boots protect the feet from getting wet from cold water, they also prevent perspiration from escaping. The insulating materials and socks will become wet more quickly than when wearing leather boots, and increase the risk for frostbite.
You may prefer to wear one pair of thick, bulky socks or two pairs - one inner sock of silk, nylon, or thin wool and a slightly larger, thick outer sock. Liner socks made from polypropylene will help keep feet dry and warmer by wicking sweat away from the skin. However, as the outer sock becomes damper, its insulation properties decrease. If work conditions permit, have extra socks available so you can dry your feet and change socks during the day. If two pairs of socks are worn, the outer sock should be a larger size so that the inner sock is not compressed.
Always wear the right thickness of socks for your boots. If they are too thick, the boots will be tight, and the socks will lose much of their insulating properties when they are compressed inside the boot. The foot could also be squeezed which will slow the blood flow to the feet, and increase the risk for cold injuries. If the socks are too thin, the boots will fit loosely and may lead to blisters.
Additional cold stress prevention tips for employers and workers and guidance on appropriate first aid procedures can be found in the additional resources listed below.
Foot Comfort and Safety at Work Fact Sheet, CCOHS
Cold Stress, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Cold Weather Workers Safety Guide Publication, CCOHS
Cold Environments – Health Effects and First Aid Fact Sheet, CCOHS
A young worker in British Columbia apprenticing as a heavy-duty equipment technician was troubleshooting a portable light tower that was running off a diesel-powered generator. The lights on the tower were not working. The apprentice tried various tactics, without success. With the tower running on its internal generator, he inserted a 12 V automotive circuit tester into a lamp socket on the side of a junction box marked 440 V. This created an electrical pathway across his chest and he was fatally electrocuted.
Light towers, commonly used in construction and the oil and gas industry, are complex, potentially dangerous pieces of equipment. The WorkSafeBC investigation found that the apprentice was not qualified to work on electrical systems such as the light tower. Only a qualified electrician should have performed maintenance or troubleshooting other than changing bulbs on the tower. A qualified electrician would have recognized that the circuit tester, which was labelled for use below 12 V, was the wrong tool for testing a 440 V socket.
WorkSafeBC offered the following safe work practices:
Read the full alert from WorkSafeBC (English only)
Electrical Safety - Basic Information Fact Sheet, CCOHS
Electrical Hazards e-course, CCOHS
Lockout e-course, CCOHS
Tips & Tools
Forklifts play an important role in the day-to-day operation of warehouses, construction sites, yard operations and manufacturing facilities. Also known as lift trucks, reach trucks, and tow motors, these useful vehicles have the potential to cause serious injury and even death to their operators, other workers, and pedestrians. Every year there are reports of serious injuries such as workers being crushed by a tipping vehicle or between the vehicle and a surface, workers being struck by falling materials, falling from a platform on the forks, or pedestrians being struck or run over.
There are many reasons people are injured by forklifts, including: inadequate training of workers who operate forklift trucks; driving at high speeds; lack of proper tools, attachments and accessories; poor maintenance; age of the forklift; and not using seatbelts.
Your employer is responsible for providing you with the training you need to operate the forklift and ensuring you are fully aware of the operating procedures. Forklifts require regular maintenance and have a limited lifespan. Employers must keep forklifts maintained, regularly serviced and their working environment clear for operating safely.
Tips for safely operating a fork lift
Forklifts have the potential to cause serious injury. Their safe operation is the shared responsibility of workers and employers.
This month’s Health and Safety To Go! podcasts feature an interview with Troy Winters, Senior Officer for Health and Safety for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, on the topic of Participatory Ergonomics and the episode MRSA – Stubborn Strain.
Feature Podcast: Participatory Ergonomics with Troy Winters
Troy Winters, Senior Officer for Health and Safety at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) joins CCOHS to share his perspective on participatory ergonomics and how it can contribute to a healthier workplace.
The podcast runs 12:50 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Feature Podcast: MRSA – A Stubborn Strain
CCOHS explores how methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, short form for MRSA, is contracted, who’s at risk and how it can be prevented in the workplace.
The podcast runs 6:19 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
The Changing World of Work national forum in Vancouver February 29 and March 1 is less than one month away and is filling up. It will bring together a cross-section of subject experts, health and safety and HR professionals, employers, and representatives from labour and government to discuss how the evolving workplace affects our collective health and safety.
Don’t miss this unique opportunity to participate and stay on top of the rapidly changing workplace.
Forum highlights include:
Globally recognized humanitarian advocate and former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders James Orbinski will deliver an keynote on his extensive work in the field that will enlighten and inspire.
Acclaimed work-life balance researcher Dr. Linda Duxbury offers insights on how employers can avoid drowning from the tsunami of demographic change that's taking place in the workforce.
Human and organization performance expert Dr. Todd Conklin will discuss operational learning for safety, exploring a fresh approach to safety management based on new principles that go beyond blame, errors, and strict compliance.
In addition, experts will explore the health and safety implications from the latest findings on sex and gender, climate change, mental health, and other emerging concepts. Plus get inspired by the projects highlighted in our Innovation Showcase, and expand your network by getting to know health and safety professionals and stakeholders from all across Canada. Leave with a stronger understanding of the latest health and safety challenges and practical ideas to effect positive changes.
Registration is Filling Up
Save when you book your accommodations at the venue hotel, the Vancouver Marriot Pinnacle. This special rate expires February 12. View details and book here.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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