Americans rely on outdoor workers throughout the winter to repair power lines, clear snow and ice, repair roads, and keep us safe, not to mention to staff ski resorts and maintain ice rinks! While these outdoor workers perform valuable jobs all winter long, they are often not adequately protected from the bitter elements and can suffer workplace injuries as a result. It is up to their employers to monitor weather conditions and provide safety equipment to these exposed workers. If your job keeps you outside in the winter, learn about the risks you face and what your employer should do to keep you safe.
Who Is at Risk in the Winter?
It might be surprising to learn that it is not just workers in the coldest climates who are at risk for cold stress injury. In warmer areas of the country, workers who are not used to cold temperatures could be affected by above-freezing temperatures when they are exposed for long periods of time. While a worker in North Dakota or Maine might be able to withstand colder temperatures longer, they are still at risk for cold stress. Workers who often suffer cold stress injuries include:
- Snow removal crews
- Recreational workers
- Construction workers
- Police officers
- Transit workers
- Baggage handlers
- Water transportation workers
- Power company workers
Any worker whose primary work location is outside is at risk for a variety of cold stress injuries.
What Is Cold Stress?
Cold temperatures, wind chills, and dampness all contribute to a lowering of the core body temperature, preventing the body from warming itself, which can lead to tissue damage and, in extreme conditions, even death. This condition is broadly termed cold stress. Types of cold stress include:
- Trench foot. A non-freezing injury to the foot, trench foot can occur in temperatures as high as 60 degrees if feet are wet for a prolonged period of time. Symptoms include reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, numbness, leg cramps, and blisters. Without treatment, permanent nerve damage can result.
- Frostbite. Caused by a freezing of the skin and tissue, frostbite is identified by gray or white patches of reddened skin on fingers, toes, nose, and ear lobes. Tingling, aching, and a loss of feeling may also occur. Serious frostbite can lead to the loss of a body part.
- Hypothermia. When the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees drops to less than 95 degrees, the person is suffering from hypothermia. Usually caused by extreme low temperatures, it is possible to suffer hypothermia in temperatures as high as 40 degrees if a person is also wet. An early warning sign of hypothermia is shivering, but a serious case can involve loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slowed heart rate and breathing, and unconsciousness. There is also a risk of death with untreated hypothermia.
Workers with preexisting conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism are at an increased risk for cold stress, as are workers in poor physical condition.
What Employers Should Do
It is essential that employers track weather conditions, including wind chills, and monitor their employees’ physical conditions when they work outside. Employers have a duty to protect their workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), employers should:
- Monitor workers’ physical condition.
- Schedule frequent short breaks in warm, dry areas, to allow the body to warm up.
- Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
- Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
- Provide warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with alcohol.
- Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters.
- Provide or require warm clothing and footwear.
Employers should also educate their workers about the dangers of cold exposure and the symptoms of cold stress injuries. They must understand that different workers will respond to the cold differently and respect a worker’s personal need to come in from the cold.
Have You Been Injured On The Job?
If you've been hurt at work on the job in Kansas City you need to speak with an experienced workers' compensation attorney as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Kansas City office directly at 816.471.5111 to schedule your free consultation.