Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Working in the Cold

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Working in the Cold

Article excerpt

Your workers may not be able to escape cold conditions, but you can help ensure they remain safe and healthy in even extreme temperatures. Here's the lowdown on low-temperature safety.

It's something that may not cross your mind very often, but the concept of "cold" is relative. Ask anyone in the United States which state is the coldest, and most will respond, "Alaska." Yet, when asked how to work safely in cold weather, a safety manager in Anchorage responded, "I'm not sure. It's not all that cold here. You want to talk cold, talk to someone in Fairbanks." (Fairbanks is 250 miles north.)

We then talked with Duncan Jakes, an operations engineer with Fairbanks Natural Gas, who responded, "Temperatures get to about 55 below zero here in the winter, but we don't have any wind, so if you want to talk about cold weather, call someone in Prudoe Bay on the North Slope. They get a lot of wind with their cold." (This is on the north shore of Alaska, 350 miles north of Fairbanks.) We didn't go that far, but we did talk with two managers in Fairbanks and one in Dutch Harbor, which is on the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea.


"Cold" tends not to be a sexy subject. Relatively few deaths are related to the cold. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only four or five work-related fatalities a year due to cold weather. In addition, there are only about 250 lost workdays a year directly due to cold weather.

Yet, these numbers are deceptive, in that they do not take into account accidents due to hypothermia-triggered disorientation. They also fail to take into account the number of workdays lost due to cold-related illnesses, such as colds and flus.

When it comes to cold weather, there are four major concerns, which can be grouped into two categories:

"Dry cold" includes thermometer temperatures as well as cold winds, which combine to create the well-known "wind chill factor." During cold weather, approximately 60 percent of a person's body energy is used to heat the body. When exposed to frigid temperatures, the body's temperature decreases, causing blood vessels to constrict, decreasing the blood flow to the skin. The exposure of the skin to the cold can lead to frostbite and possibly even hypothermia.

"Wet cold" includes dampness in the air, as well as direct contact with water, such as falling into a creek or lake, or being exposed to sleet or freezing rain. While the body naturally loses heat in dry, cold weather, it loses even more when exposed to wet cold. In fact, according to OSHA, wet clothing causes the body to lose heat 24 times faster than dry clothing.

Cold weather is even more of a problem for people ingesting certain substances (primarily alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or some prescription drugs), as well as for those with certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease or thyroid conditions.

The three most common and serious problems associated with the cold are frostbite, hypothermia and trenchfoot.

Frostbite. As noted earlier, blood vessels near the skin constrict in cold weather so the body can conserve blood to keep vital internal organs warm. Eventually, the skin begins to freeze, causing ice crystals to form between cells and draw water from them. This leads to cellular hydration. The most common areas for frostbite are the fingers, toes, cheeks and nose.

Symptoms of frostbite include an uncomfortable sensation of coldness, then tingling, stinging or aching in the ex-posed area, followed by numbness. The area generally appears white and cold to the touch.

Hypothermia. Each year, more than 700 people in the United States die from hypothermia. When the body temperature falls below a certain level, normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. At 95 degrees, the person experiences shivering, an inability to engage in complex motor functions, lethargy and mind confusion. …

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