Cold Feet Prevention: Steps to Stay Safe and Warm When Working Outdoors

Introduction: This podcast is brought to you by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Rachelle: Hello, and thanks for joining us today as we chat about cold feet troubles. And no, we’re not talking about cold feet as in getting nervous and backing out of a big event…Today, we’re learning about the elements that our feet our exposed to, and the potential they face for physical injury.

Chris: Thanks for the much-needed clarification! The fact is, foot problems can occur in almost any workplace and under many different working conditions, especially in Canada. Here, our winter weather brings about unique hazards for our feet, and subsequently the bodies attached to them.

Rachelle: That’s right. For protection from workplace hazards like crushes and punctures, our feet are protected by safety footwear that meet the standards set by the Canadian Standards Association. But during the colder months, our feet (and other body parts) can be met with cold weather afflictions that can have some painful and sometimes serious consequences. Let’s get into a few of them:

Chris: During the winter, working outdoors can mean working in freezing temperatures or in temperatures just above freezing but in wet conditions. These situations can put our feet at risk of frostbite, chilblains, and trench foot.

Rachelle: A chilling list. Let’s start with frostbite. What are the signs?

Chris: Good question. Frostbite’s caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. First your skin becomes very cold and red, then it becomes numb, hard, and pale. It’s most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin.

Symptoms can include reduced blood flow to hands and feet, numbness or a loss of feeling, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale waxy skin.  Damage can occur to the blood vessels which reduces blood flow to hands and feet.  In severe cases, frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and severe cases can lead to amputation.

Rachelle: And then there’s frost nip, or simply a milder version of frostbite. If you notice the signs mentioned above early on, you can treat them in a few ways. First, move to a warm room or wrap yourself in blankets. Only thaw the area if you are sure it will not refreeze. This situation can be a risk when working in remote areas.  Warm gently using body heat or water at 38 to 40 degree Celsius. 

Chris: A quick note there: warming frostbitten skin can be very painful, so any injured skin should be wrapped gently with loose, dry dressings. Don’t break blisters or rub, massage or shake the injured skin. Those actions can cause more damage.

Rachelle: Good point. Let’s move onto chilblains. Repeated exposure to cold, but not freezing, air can result in something called chilblains. This condition involves the painful inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin. It can cause itching, red patches, swelling, and blistering on the affected areas, like your hands or feet.

Chris: Chilblains usually clear up anywhere within one to three weeks, especially if the weather gets warmer or exposure stops. They don't usually result in permanent injury, but the condition can lead to infection, which may cause severe damage if left untreated.

Rachelle: Now onto trench foot. This is an injury of the feet that happens from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can even occur at temperatures as high as 16 degrees Celsius if the feet are constantly wet.

Chris: 16 degrees? Why’s that?

Rachelle: Good question. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. So to prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down the circulation in the feet. Your skin tissue then begins to die because of the lack of oxygen and nutrients, and the buildup of toxins.

Chris: What are the symptoms?

Rachelle: If you’re injured with trench foot, you’ll notice the reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin, and gangrene. With more severe injury, the foot can turn dark purple, blue, or gray.

Chris: Sounds dangerous. So how can it be prevented if you’re working out in the cold or wet weather?

Rachelle: Simple. Wearing appropriate footwear and socks is a good first step to protecting your feet from the cold and the injuries we’ve just mentioned.

Chris: That brings us to our next point: what is “protective footwear”? You might think of protective footwear to be steel toe shoes or work boots, but when it comes to working in the cold, protective footwear needs to be designed for the elements.

Look for footwear that’s insulated, but don’t stop at your shoes.

Rachelle: That’s right. Insulate your legs with thermal undergarments, wear insulating overshoes over work footwear, and wear insulating muffs around the ankles and over the top of your footwear to help keep your feet protected.

Chris: And when it comes to shoes and boots, look for felt-lined, rubber bottomed, leather-topped boots with removable felt insoles. These are best suited for heavy work in cold since leather is porous, which allows the boots to breathe and sweat to evaporate. And remember: leather boots can be waterproofed with products that don’t block the pores in the leather.

Rachelle: Now, if your work involves standing in water or slush, waterproof boots are a must. However, while these boots protect feet from getting wet from cold water, they also prevent sweat from escaping. Your feet can still become wet, increasing your risk for frostbite.

Chris: This is where socks come into play, or should we say, work.

Wear either one pair of thick, bulky socks or two pairs. If you choose to go with two, wear one inner sock that’s made of silk, nylon, or thin wool, then a slightly larger and thick outer sock.

Rachelle: Pro tip? Look for a liner sock made from polypropylene. It will help keep your feet dry and warmer by wicking sweat away from the skin.

Chris: Another tip? Keep extra socks on hand. If your outer sock becomes damp, it won’t insulate as well.

Rachelle: That’s right. Now, for our last tip to prevent cold feet: always wear the right thickness of socks for your boots. If they’re too thick, your boots will be tight, and the socks will lose their insulating properties. Also, your foot might be squeezed which will slow the blood flow to the feet, increasing the risk for cold injuries.

Chris: On the other hand, if the socks are too thin, the boots will fit loosely and may lead to blisters.

Rachelle: Ouch. The bottom line is that cold weather shouldn’t mean cold feet. Protect your toes, soles, and every other part of your feet by wearing the right protective gear, and being aware of what’s happening to your body.

Chris: If you notice signs of frostbite or nip, chilblains, or trench foot, seek warmth and assistance right away.

Rachelle: Exactly! For more information and tips on how to keep yourself warm and dry while working in the cold, visit Thanks for listening!