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Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide

What is Cold Stress?

Cold stress occurs when the temperature of the skin, as well as that of the internal body (core temperature) drops below the normal range. If the body is unable to warm itself, this may cause tissue damage and possibly death.

Factors That Increase the Risk of Cold Stress:

The following risk factors may increase an individual’s susceptibility to cold stress:

  • Wearing wet or damp clothing
  • Wearing inappropriate clothing or a lack of personal protective equipment
  • Overexertion and/or exhaustion
  • The presence of predisposing health conditions including diabetes, hypothyroidism and hypertension
  • Poor physical health

The Effects of Cold Temperatures on the Body

In extreme cold conditions or cold environments, our bodies utilize energy to keep our internal core at an optimal temperature for proper functioning. This is done by shifting the blood flow through the body. That is, our bodies will begin to shift blood flow from our outer skin and extremities (hands and feet) to our core regions (chest and abdomen). As a result of this shift in blood flow, our exposed skin along with our extremities begins to cool rapidly, thus increasing our risk for cold-related disorders.

The Four Most Common Types of Cold- Related Disorders

Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when our body:

  • loses heat faster than it can be replaced and;
  • our normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F

Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues of our bodies become frozen. As the temperature decreases, the more quickly frostbite occurs. Generally, our extremities are the most susceptible to frostbite.

Immersion or Trench Foot: Trench Foot or immersion foot occurs when our feet are exposed to wet and cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time. Remember, to keep our internal core warm, our body shifts the flow of blood from the extremities to our core. Therefore, blood circulation to our feet and hands becomes restricted. As a result, the skin tissue in our feet and hands begins to die due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients combined with the build-up of toxic products

Chilblains: Chilblains occur when the skin is repeatedly exposed to cold temperatures. The cold exposure causes damage to the small blood vessels in the skin called capillaries. Generally, the parts of our body most prone to chilblains are our cheeks, ears, fingers and toes. This type of damage is permanent.

Tips for Employees:

  • Ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress and cold-related disorders
  • Monitor your physical condition, as well as that of your co-workers
  • Wear the appropriate clothing for working in the cold (Winter jacket, hat/balaclava, gloves, boots, layered clothing)
  • Keep yourself and your clothing as dry as possible
  • Keep extra clothing easily accessible in case you need to change
  • Drink warm sweetened fluids as often as possible and avoid alcohol
  • Use the proper personal protective equipment provided by your employer
  • Use the engineering controls provided by your employer
  • Adopt safe work practices