Editor’s note: This information was furnished by the Galion Safety Council. Although geared to employees and employers, these common-sense steps can keep you safe elsewhere, too.
GALION — Anyone working in a cold environment may be at risk of cold stress. Some workers may be required to work outdoors in cold environments and for extended periods, for example, snow cleanup crews, sanitation workers, police officers and emergency response and recovery personnel, like firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Cold stress can be encountered in these types of work environment.
Here are some frequently asked questions. How cold is too cold? What constitutes extreme cold and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered “extreme cold.” A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. Whenever temperatures drop below normal and wind speed increases, heat can leave your body more rapidly.
Wind chill is the temperature your body feels when air temperature and wind speed are combined. For example, when the air temperature is 40°F, and the wind speed is 35 mph, the effect on the exposed skin is as if the air temperature was 28°F. Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature and eventually the internal body temperature (core temperature). This may lead to serious health problems, and may cause tissue damage, and possibly death.
Dressing properly is extremely important to preventing cold stress. The type of fabric worn also makes a difference. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet. Wool, silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation even when wet. The following are recommendations for working in cold environments:
Wear at least three layers of loose fitting clothing. Layering provides better insulation. Do not wear tight fitting clothing.
- An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body.
- A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet.
- An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
Wear a hat or hood to help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head. Use a knit mask to cover the face and mouth (if needed). Use insulated gloves to protect the hands (water resistant if necessary). Wear insulated and waterproof boots (or other footwear).
- Dress properly for the cold.
- Stay dry. Moisture or dampness, e.g. from sweating, can increase the rate of heat loss from the body.
- Keep extra clothing (including underwear) handy.
- Drink warm sweetened fluids (no alcohol).
Risk factors that contribute to cold stress
- Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion
- Predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
In a cold environment, most of the body’s energy is used to keep the internal core temperature warm. Over time, the body will begin to shift blood flow from the extremities (hands, feet, arms, and legs) and outer skin to the core (chest and abdomen). This shift allows the exposed skin and the extremities to cool rapidly and increases the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced, and the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F), if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
As the body temperature continues to fall, symptoms will worsen and shivering will stop. Someone may may lose coordination and fumble with items in the hand, become confused and disoriented. They may be unable to walk or stand, pupils become dilated, pulse and breathing become slowed, and loss of consciousness can occur. Death can occur if help is not received immediately.
What to do?
- Call 911 immediately in an emergency; otherwise seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
- Move to a warm, dry area.
- Remove wet clothes and replace with dry clothes, cover the body (including the head and neck) with layers of blankets; and with a vapor barrier (e.g. tarp, garbage bag). Do not cover the face.
If medical help is more than 30 minutes away
- Give warm sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol), to help increase the body temperature. Never try to give a drink to an unconscious person.
- Place warm bottles or hot packs in armpits, sides of chest, and groin. Call 911 for additional rewarming instructions.
- If a person is not breathing or has no pulse:
- Call 911 for emergency medical assistance immediately.
- Treat the worker as per instructions for hypothermia, but be very careful and do not try to give an unconscious person fluids.
- Check him/her for signs of breathing and for a pulse. Check for 60 seconds.
- If after 60 seconds the affected worker is not breathing and does not have a pulse, trained workers may start rescue breaths for 3 minutes.
- Recheck for breathing and pulse, check for 60 seconds.
- If the worker is still not breathing and has no pulse, continue rescue breathing.
- Only start chest compressions per the direction of the 911 operator or emergency medical services*
- Reassess patient’s physical status periodically.
Signs of frostbite include: Reddened skin develops gray/white patches; Numbness in the affected part; Feels firm or hard; Blisters may occur in the affected part, in severe cases.
What to do?
- Follow the recommendations described above for hypothermia.
- Do not rub the affected area to warm it because this action can cause more damage.
- Do not apply snow/water. Do not break blisters.
- Loosely cover and protect the area from contact.
- Do not try to rewarm the frostbitten area before getting medical help; for example, do not place in warm water. If a frostbitten area is rewarmed and gets frozen again, more tissue damage will occur. It is safer for the frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals.
- Give warm sweetened drinks, if the person is alert. Avoid drinks with alcohol.