Cold Weather Hazards

First published on 01/13/2016

Several potential hazards exist when winter temperatures fall below zero. This Toolbox Talk addresses three of them.

Frostbite is damage to skin and tissue caused by exposure to freezing temperatures. It can cause loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It can affect any part of the body; however, the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are most likely to be affected. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissue and, in severe cases, can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased when individuals do not dress appropriately for the weather conditions.

Symptoms of frostbite include numbness; tingling or stinging; aching; and bluish, pail or waxy skin. If you think you are suffering from frostbite, get into a warm location as soon as possible. Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet. This increases the damage. Warm the affected area using body heat. For example, place a frostbitten hand under your arm. Do not rub or massage the affected area, because doing so can cause more damage to the skin. Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can easily burn.

Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, is caused from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit if the feet are constantly wet. 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 due to lack of oxygen and nutrients.

Symptoms of trench foot include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain and bleeding under the skin. If you are suffering from trench foot, you should remove shoes/boots and wet socks, dry your feet and avoid walking, as this may cause tissue damage.

Chilblains are caused when the skin is repeatedly exposed to temperatures ranging from just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold causes damage to the capillary beds (groups of small blood vessels) in the skin. This damage is permanent, and the redness and itching (typically on cheeks, ears, fingers and toes) will return with additional exposure.

Symptoms of chilblains include redness, itching, possible blistering, inflammation and possible ulceration in severe cases. If you have chilblains you should avoid scratching, slowly warm the skin, use corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling and keep blisters and ulcers clean and covered.

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Be Prepared for Cold Weather

It’s getting colder, and winter is just around the corner. Now is the time to think about the extra safety precautions you need to take during the winter months, whether driving or working on the jobsite.

Check out these tips for driving in winter weather:

  • Give yourself extra time to drive to work.
  • Use extra caution on bridges and overpasses. Remember that they will freeze first.
  • Drive defensively. Watch out for drivers who may be driving too fast for road conditions, or who may have lost control of their vehicle.
  • Measure the low-temperature protection provided by the antifreeze in your vehicle to avoid frozen radiator and hoses.
  • Keep an ice scraper, shovel, jumper cables, a blanket and some sand, kitty litter or traction mats in your vehicle.
  • Check the tread on your tires. If it’s less than one-eighth of an inch, consider replacing the tires.
  • Check the air tanks on your truck, and make sure liquid isn’t building up. During winter months, air brake lines could freeze because the air tanks weren’t drained. Driving a truck under these conditions is very dangerous.

Dress for working in cold weather:

  • Wear layers of clothing. Many layers of thin garments trap heat better than a few thick ones. You can always remove a layer if you get warmer.
  • Wear a liner in your hard hat.
  • Wear headbands or hooded jackets to protect your ears.
  • Keep clothes clean and dry.
  • Wear water-resistant boots.
  • Wear windproof outer layers.
  • Wear cotton close to the body.
  • Wear gloves with liners, if possible.
  • Wear an extra pair of socks for added warmth.
  • Make sure your safety vest is clean and in good repair. As the days get shorter, early low-light conditions make it very difficult for passing drivers, equipment operators and other co-workers to see you.

When possible, consider taking additional precautions against cold weather:

  • Take breaks in warm areas.
  • Use approved warming devices. Be cautious of carbon monoxide buildup when you are indoors.
  • Use the buddy system, and check on each other regularly.
  • Be cautious of ice buildup on the jobsite. Slip and fall injuries can occur suddenly.
  • Schedule work to avoid being exposed to high-wind conditions.
  • Work with your back to the wind.

The best time to prepare for the cold is before you are exposed. Think ahead, and be prepared for changing conditions. Following these steps can lessen your chances of an accident or injury.

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