What is Cold Stress?

Cold winter weather can be downright dangerous, and it is important to know the risks to workers and how to stay protected from harsh winters. According to the National Weather Service, 30% of injuries during winter storms are a result of being unprepared with adequate clothing. Depending on where you’re located, workers could be exposed to copious amounts of snow, rain, sleet, and ice. For workers this means it’s never too early to start planning how to best protect yourself from the elements of winter.

Employees who work outdoors or in areas without heat or poor insulation are most susceptible to the risk of cold stress. Cold stress is caused by prolonged exposure to extreme cold. Watch Tyndale’s Vice President of Technical and Subject Matter Expert, Scott Margolin give a brief explanation of cold stress and how to avoid it.

Scott’s explanation of cold stress offers 4 valuable tips to keep yourself and others protected against harsh winter weather:

  • When selecting FR and arc rated apparel for cold environments, choose insulted clothing or layering options that wick and evaporate moisture so you don’t remain wet.
  • Make sure you are taking frequent breaks in warm areas to keep your core body temperature up.
  • Put a buddy system in place. Working in pairs allows workers to recognize when one another is in danger.
  • Keep non-alcoholic hot beverages readily available to warm your body internally.

As Scott mentions, cold stress is a threat in many environments. What constitutes cold stress and its effects on the body can vary across different areas of the country. In the northern United States, extreme factors for cold stress are considered to be temperatures below freezing. In regions where workers are relatively unaccustomed to cold weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. When temperatures drop below normal and wind speed increases, this causes heat to rapidly escape a worker’s body. This can be a factor in cold stress related illness or complications.

OSHA lists Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Trench Foot as the most common cold induced illnesses and injuries. Below we have provided warning signs to help avoid exposing yourself to any of these conditions.

Hypothermia: Hypothermia is a potentially life threatening condition, that is defined as the general cooling of the body’s core temperature to below 95°F. A normal body temperature is 98.6°F. This type of cold stress affects the brain, and as a result, the victim is unable to think clearly or move well and may not realize they are in any danger. Hypothermia sets in when the body heat lost exceeds the body’s heat production due to prolonged cold exposure. Signs of hypothermia change as the body temperature falls. Mental functions typically decline first including an inability to make decisions, slurred speech, disorientation, incoherence, irrationality and unconsciousness. Muscle functions also deteriorate with shivering and loss of fine motor abilities.

Frostbite: This occurs when skin tissue freezes through all skin layers. Frostbite can occur in conjunction with hypothermia. When a worker’s core body temperature lowers, it decreases circulation and threatens fiber organs. This triggers a life-over-limb response, meaning your body protects organs over your extremities. With decreased circulation to the skin, the tissue freezes. Frozen skin turns red then grey/blue with blisters. In the worst cases of frostbite, the skin dies and turns blue/black. At this stage amputation is often required.

Trench foot: Also known as immersion foot, this type of cold stress can occur at temperatures as high as 60° as long as the foot is wet. Workers feet are at risk of trench foot if they are exposed to cold water, they don’t change their socks often, the worker’s hygiene is poor, or they have allowed sweat to accumulate in their boots. When sweat accumulates in workers boots this causes the skin to soften and loss of skin tissue which eventually leads to infection. The foot becomes numb, changes colors, swells, and in extreme cases starts to smell.

Tyndale offers a variety of FRC that helps to protect workers from cold stress related illnesses and injuries. Prevent your risk of cold stress by wearing the appropriate FR clothing as layers. To learn more about layering your FR gear see our blog posts on wicking or FR inner layers, FR outer layers, and waterproof FR layer. For more information, and to shop for FRC visit Tyndale’s Retail Site.

References for this post were accessed December 2019:

https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/emergencypreparedness/guides/cold.html

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress/

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