Keeping the Chill Out: Advice for Preventing Cold Stress

Baby, it’s cold outside. But for anyone who works outside or in a cold environment, this is no joke. You may be at risk for cold stress. This includes outdoor jobs involving construction or agriculture as well as indoor jobs that involve things like cold storage.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a specific standard that covers protecting workers in cold environments. However, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers do have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards.[1] It is widely accepted by OSHA enforcement that this does include cold stress hazards that may cause or is likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.

Cold stress can result from overexposure to extremely cold conditions and may involve increased wind speed and the wind chill effect. If you are not dressed properly for the weather conditions, or your clothing or skin becomes wet while working in cold conditions, you may be at risk for health problems arising from cold stress. Poor physical conditioning, exhaustion and some other health conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes as well as other chronic and isolated conditions such as influenza may put you at increased risk for suffering from cold stress.

Moreover, prolonged exposure to cold and/or freezing temperatures while on the job may cause serious health problems such as trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia. In extreme cases, exposure to cold temperatures can lead to death. To learn more, check out additional information about this and a work/warm-up schedule for a four-shift provided by OSHA.[2]

Dress Appropriately for the Weather

Dressing properly is extremely important to preventing cold stress if you work in cold, wet and/or windy conditions. Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layers provide better insulation and help to regulate body temperature.

The most inner layer should include thermal wear, synthetic (polypropylene) material, wool or silk, to keep moisture away from the body. A middle layer of wool or synthetic should also be worn to help provide insulation even when you get wet. Finally, an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating should be worn.

It should also be noted that tight clothing reduces blood circulation and warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities. Find clothing that fits appropriately and that can be layered. You should check to make sure your personal protective equipment (PPE) choices also work well with this layering approach. For instance, if you are wearing a fall protection safety harness you must make sure it is worn on top of your clothes unless there is a hole for a dorsal D-ring.

Tips to Help Prevent Injury from Cold Stress

There are also some important safety practices that can be implemented to help protect workers from cold stress, including:

  • Schedule work shifts for the warmest part of the day
  • Make every effort to stay dry in the cold because moisture or dampness, even from sweating, can increase the rate of heat loss from the body
  • Take frequent, short breaks in warm, dry shelters
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages and also make sure to avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol that can contribute to dehydration
  • Eat warm, high-calorie and protein-rich foods
  • Use the buddy system and have people work in pairs so that one worker can monitor the other and alert a supervisor if someone exhibits signs of distress from cold stress

Employers should also make every effort to provide adequate training on how to work safely in cold temperatures. If you need help with evaluating your PPE to see if it fits with this plan to help prevent cold stress, please do not hesitate to contact our health and safety specialists today at 1-800-328-1667.