Working and surviving in extreme cold

February 6th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Brrrr … after a mild winter here in the Northeast, we are waking up to temperatures in the single digits this week and wind chill that makes it feel 10 or 15 degrees colder. The cold is no doubt exacerbated because we had a relatively quick temperature plummet rather than a sustained low – we haven’t had a chance to gradually acclimate.
For some people, extreme temperatures are more than just a passing annoyance – they pose health and life-threatening risks. News reports are attributing at least seven deaths to the freezing temperatures. While many of us can just can crank the thermostat up a degree or two in our home or office, many workers have to brave the elements as part of their jobs – police, postal workers, construction workers, maintenance workers, and recreational workers, to name but a few. Firefighters who face dangerous conditions under ordinary circumstances face added challenges in frigid weather. And some at-risk work populations face even higher risks in the cold. These include older workers, workers who have predisposing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension, and workers who are taking certain types of medications. Precautions should also be taken for workers who work alone or in isolated areas.
OSHA’s Cold stress equation offers a graphic depiction of risk levels associated with various temperature ranges and wind speeds, as well as information on how frostbite and hypothermia affect the body. (Chart in Spanish). It includes the following sensible tips:

  • Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses/injuries and what to do to help the worker.
  • Train the workforce about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions. Layer clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures. Wear a hat and gloves, in addition to underwear that will keep water away from the skin (polypropylene).
  • Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
  • Perform work during the warmest part of the day.
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) or alcohol.
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.

Here are a few other good cold-weather resources
Canada’s National Occupational Health & safety Resource offers fact sheet about working in cold environments that includes a guide for threshold limits and warm-up schedule for four hour shifts, along with information about personal protective equipment and preventive tips.
The Centers for Disease Control offers Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety that offers information for both home and work environments, including a temperature with wind chill chart and tips for weather-proofing your home and car.
Cold impacts on human health and comfort
Create a winter car survival kit.