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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Winter Work Safety

Each season brings its own set of hazards for construction workers. As we enter the winter season, be especially mindful of the weather, its effects on the body and proper actions to prevent serious injury, permanent tissue damage or even death.

Low temperatures, high winds, dampness and cold water can contribute to cold-related stress on your body. Wearing inadequate or wet clothing increases the effects of cold on the body. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and some medications inhibit the body’s response to the cold and can impair judgement.

Fatigue, nausea, confusion, lightheadedness and profuse sweating are symptoms of hypothermia. Exposed skin can start to freeze at just 28F causing frostbite. Deep frostbite can cause blood clots and even gangrene.

Following are several tips to consider while working outdoors during the winter months:

  • Keep your body temperature at or about normal (98.6F). This can be accomplished by wearing layers of clothing.
  • Wear cotton or lightweight wool fabrics next to your skin. Add layers when you are cold, remove layers when hot.
  • Keep your clothing as dry as possible. Protect your clothing as needed by wearing rain gear and other durable garments. Keep an extra pair of socks handy so you can change them as needed. You may also want to consider investing in waterproof footwear.
  • Protect your head, neck and ears. Up to 40 percent of body heat can be lost when the head is exposed.
  • Wear the right gloves for the work you are doing. They should have enough insulation to keep you warm and prevent frostbite, but thin enough so you can feel what you are doing if you are manipulating controls or tools.
  • Keep your safety eyewear from fogging up in the cold. Use anti-fog coatings and wipes that are appropriate for your eyewear.

If your skin becomes discolored and it appears that circulation has been limited, then you are probably experiencing the early stages of frostbite. If this occurs, find a way to immediately start warming that particular part of the body. Tips for treating frostbite include:

  • When possible, go indoors or to a warmer area to prevent further exposure.
  • Never rub or massage the affected body part.
  • Never use hot water. You should gradually warm the frostbitten area by immersing it in lukewarm water.
  • If blisters develop, cover them with a bandage or gauze to prevent them from opening and becoming infected.
  • Refrain from smoking as it slows down the circulation of blood to the extremities.
  • Avoid caffeine. It constricts blood vessels.
  • When normal feeling, movement and skin color have returned, the area affected should be dried and wrapped to keep it warm.
  • If the condition does not improve, seek professional medical attention.

Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. Prepare in advance, observe safety precautions and reduce your risk of weather-related injury.

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