The temperatures are dropping and winter will soon be here. With subfreezing and occasionally subzero temperatures, people who work outside in New York for extended periods need to know the risks of their jobs. What follows are things people in construction, maintenance, law enforcement, firefighting and other outdoor occupations should know about the dangers of being outside in cold weather.
Employees working in the cold are at risk of experiencing cold stress, which occurs when the skin temperature drops. If this condition persists long enough, a person’s internal temperature also goes down. The result is tissue damage and other health problems. People can die from cold stress.
Factors that make cold stress more likely when working in cold temperatures include being wet, exhausted and improperly dressed. People with high blood pressure, diabetes, hypothyroidism and poor physical strength are more susceptible to cold stress.
When the outside temperature is very cold, the human body uses available energy to keep the internal core temperature warm. To do this, the body may have to move blood from the hands, feet, legs and arms to the chest and abdomen (the core). Extremities can become very cold, increasing the risk of hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot, the most common consequences of cold stress.
Be Aware of Symptoms of Cold Stress
Be aware of the symptoms of the three primary consequences of cold stress: hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls to less than 95 degrees. It can happen even at moderate temperatures, especially if clothing becomes wet. Moderate hypothermia can cause a person to lose coordination and become confused and disoriented. Other symptoms include slow heart rate and breathing. Unconsciousness and death will follow if a person is not treated quickly.
If you suspect a fellow worker is suffering from hypothermia, call 911 if the person is unconscious. Move the person to a warm and dry area. Remove wet clothing and replace with dry. Cover the person with layers of blankets, other clothing and a vapor barrier such as a tarp or plastic sheet. Give warm sweet drinks if the victim is alert, but no alcohol. Put warm objects such as heat packs or bottles of warm water in the armpits, sides of the chest and the groin.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue under the skin freeze. It usually affects the feet and hands. Symptoms of frostbite include reddened skin with white or gray patches. Other signs include numbness, hard or firm skin and blisters.
Emergency treatment of frostbite is similar to treatment for hypothermia. However, there are special considerations for frostbite that include not rubbing the affected skin, which can damage it further. If you are helping someone with frostbite symptoms, do not use water or snow or break any blisters. Do not place affected parts in warm water without getting medical instructions. Cover the affected areas loosely if possible and get the individual to a warmer place.
Trench foot (also called immersion foot) is the result of prolonged exposure to moisture and cold temperatures. Moreover, trench foot can happen even at nonfreezing temperatures if the feet are constantly wet. Tissue damage occurs in trench foot because wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet. When the feet become cold because of moisture, the body constricts blood vessels in the feet to conserve heat in other parts of the body. Lacking adequate oxygen, the skin breaks down.
Symptoms of trench foot include numbness, redness and itching of the feet. Swelling and blisters can also occur. If a co-worker complains of symptoms such as these, have him or her remove wet shoes or boots and socks.
Employees who know the symptoms of cold stress and its basic treatment can help both themselves and fellow workers. Our next blog will present ways that workers and their employers can prevent cold stress altogether.