Weather-related accidents and injuries can happen at any time of the year. However, winter weather brings more hazards than other seasons, especially for workers who are routinely exposed to the elements. The winter season brings a drop in temperature and other extreme conditions that may put workers at risk. Working outdoors in heavy snow, freezing rain or sleet, high winds, or icy conditions exposes workers to the development of cold stress, a drop in the body’s internal temperature that can cause serious damage if not addressed quickly. Cold stress starts when the body’s skin temperature drops and can progress rapidly to affect the body’s core temperature. The effects of extreme cold and wind chill can be compounded if workers have damp clothing from snow, rain, or even their own sweat. If the body cannot warm itself and its temperature stays too low, tissue and organs may be damaged as a result. Injuries that occur as a result of cold stress include:

  • Chilblains: Repeated exposure to low but non-freezing temperatures can cause damage to the skin and tissue underneath and inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin. Symptoms include redness, itching, pain, inflammation, blisters, and ulcers.
  • Trench foot: Prolonged dampness can cause trench foot even when temperatures are not especially low, as wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet. Symptoms include pain, redness, tingling or numbness, swelling, muscle cramps, and blisters. In severe situations, gangrene can even occur where the foot appears dark purple, blue, or gray.
  • Frostbite: Freezing of skin and tissues that is commonly seen on extremities such as fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, chin, or earlobes. If not treated immediately, frostbite can cause tissue damage due to decreased circulation, which may result in amputation. Symptoms can include gray and white patches on the skin, blue or waxy skin, tingling and numbness, aching, unusual firmness in affected area, and blisters.
  • Hypothermia: When a person loses body heat faster than they can regenerate it, they use up their stored energy and their internal functions may start to shut down. Hypothermia occurs when there is a drop in body temperature to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms can begin with uncontrollable shivering and fatigue as the body tries to warm itself; as it progresses, hypothermia can impact brain function and cause confusion, slurred speech, loss of coordination, dilated pupils, slow heart rate or breathing, unconsciousness, or even death.

Some tips to prevent the onset of cold stress injuries involve dressing appropriately for the conditions, taking breaks in a warm area, and keeping extra supplies on hand. The best way to insulate a body and prevent a weather-related workplace illness is to layer it with loose clothing as opposed to just relying on one bulky item. Hands, feet, ears, and the face should all be covered when temperatures are extremely cold. Workers should keep extra cold weather clothing and items available to replace socks or gloves that may get wet during the course of work. In addition, exposure to extreme temperatures should be limited with employers providing warm locations where people who work outside can take a break. Lastly, employees and supervisors should be trained to recognize the warning signs and treat cold-related injuries appropriately. If workers suspect they are suffering from any cold stress condition, they should be moved to a warm, dry place and replace any wet clothing immediately. Emergency medical care may be needed in some cases, especially for hypothermia, which can have lasting effects if not treated immediately.