Working in the Cold

The 2012-2013 Farmers’ Almanac says, “Temperatureswill be much colder this winter from the East Coastwestward to a line from the Dakotas to Texas.” Otherparts of the country are expected to be a little warmerthan normal, the almanac predicts, but that does not eliminatethe possibility of construction workers being affected by seriouscold-related illnesses or injuries.

More than cold air temperature affects body warmth.Wind speed and skin wetness also play a big part. Therefore,construction workers who are not properly dressed or protectedfrom the cold are susceptible to cold stress, frostbiteor hypothermia.

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Managers and employees should understand how coldweather can affect them and their co-workers. If your company’semployees work outside during the winter months whenthe temperatures have dropped and the wind is howling, youmust ensure their safety by educating them about how to protectthemselves from the cold weather.

There is more to staying warm than wearing a warm coat, hat,boots and gloves. Even though an employee’s body will try tomaintain a normal core temperature of approximately 98.6 degreesF, workers can do several things to keep themselves warm.

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Why Humans Get Cold

When temperatures drop and the bodybegins to get cold, blood vessels in the skin,arms and legs constrict, decreasing blood flowto extremities. This helps minimize cooling ofthe blood and keeps critical internal organswarm. However, at very low temperatures, thereduction of blood flow to the extremities resultsin lower skin temperatures, which couldultimately result in frostbite.

Another factor that greatly affects thebody’s ability to stay warm is wind. Windchilloccurs because heat is rapidly lost as airmoves over the surfaces of the skin. Windchillinvolves the combined effect of air temperatureand air movement. The lower thetemperature and greater the wind speed, thefaster heat is lost. Add to that the individualwho has been working hard and sweating oris wet from the weather (e.g., rain or snow) and the risk of coldrelatedillness or injury increases.

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Results of Prolonged Exposure to Cold

Hypothermia is a medical condition in which the victim’score body temperature drops significantly below normal andthe body’s normal metabolism begins to be impaired. This beginsto happen when the body’s core temperature drops below95 degrees F. When body temperature falls below 90 degrees F,hypothermia can become critical and eventually fatal. The earlywarning signs of hypothermia are excessive shivering, bluelips and fingers, slurred speech, poor coordination, confusionand impaired thinking. Hypothermia may occur at temperatureswell above freezing when a victim is wet or submergedin cold water. If a supervisor or co-worker observes any of thesymptoms of hypothermia in an employee, get medical attention.Immediately take the victim to shelter, e.g., heated office,trailer, car or truck. Remove wet clothing and wrap victim inwarm covers or provide him with warm, dry clothing. Try tokeep the victim awake and provide warm, sweet drinks (sugarwater, sports drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (e.g. coffee,tea, sodas or hot chocolate) and alcoholic beverages.

Frostbite is an injury to the skin andunderlying tissue — most often the nose,ears, fingers or toes — resulting from prolongedexposure to extreme cold. Thesymptoms are a pins-and-needles sensationfollowed by numbness or pain in theaffected extremities. Frostbite is distinguishableby hard, pale and cold skin. Asthe area thaws, the skin becomes red andvery painful. If you observe frostbite symptomsin an employee or co-worker, movethe victim to a warmer place and removeany constricting jewelry and wet clothing.Wrap the affected areas in sterile dressings(remember to separate affected fingers andtoes) and immediately get medical attention.Do not rub or massage the affectedskin and do not apply hot water or heat.Also, look for signs of hypothermia andtreat accordingly.

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How to Protect Workers

Managers and employees should be ableto recognize the environmental and workplaceconditions that lead to potential coldrelatedillnesses and injuries. They shouldlearn the signs and symptoms of these illnessesand injuries and what to do to helpif a worker is overexposed to the cold. Trainthe workforce about cold-related illnessesand injuries. Refer to the NUCA ToolboxTalks or OSHA Quick Cards.

Instruct workers on selecting the properclothing for working in cold, wet andwindy conditions. Layers of clothing shouldbe worn to adjust to changing environmentaltemperatures. In addition to wearing ahat or helmet liner and warm work gloves,workers should wear underwear that willkeep water away from the skin, such as underwearmade from polypropylene.

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Workers should be instructed and permittedto take frequent short breaks in awarm dry shelter to allow their bodies towarm up. Management should considerproviding some kind of shelter, e.g., tent ortrailer with a heater, at very cold jobs. Whenpossible, schedule the work for the warmestpart of the day.

Instruct workers to avoid exhaustion or fatiguebecause it takes energy to keep muscleswarm. Encourage workers to use a buddysystem (work in pairs), so they can look outfor symptoms of cold-related injuries.

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Urge workers to fill up with high-calorie foods, like oatmeal, before work. Theyshould pack their lunch coolers/warmers with warm, high-calorie food, like riceand pasta dishes and their thermoses with warm, sweet beverages (sugar water,decaffeinated tea or sports-type drinks). Workers should avoid drinks with caffeine(coffee, tea or hot chocolate) and alcohol.

At-Risk Workers

Some workers may be at increased risk due to poor physical condition, age, medicationsor health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or hypertension.


Cold waves come and go. Some people find working in the cold invigorating, butit can be very dangerous for workers who don’t know the dangers of cold weatheror how to protect themselves. It does not matter where they are working — northor south — when the temperatures drop and the wind is blowing, the risk for coldweather injuries exist.

To learn more about cold weather hazards and the precautions that should betaken to reduce the chance of illness or injury, visit the NUCA website ToolboxTalks and download “Working in Cold Weather.” Or download the OSHA ColdStress Quick Card, Both the ToolboxTalks and Quick Cards are available in English and Spanish.

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.