Cold Kills, so Warm Workers

Working in cold environments can be dangerous, even deadly, so take some advice from OSHA and use these tips to keep workers safe.

Working in cold environments can be dangerous, just look at the facts: More than 700 people die of hypothermia each year in the United States.

Prolonged exposure to freezing or cold temperatures can result in health problems such as trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Employers and workers in construction, commercial fishing, maritime and agriculture need to take precautions and learn how to prevent and treat cold-related disorders. Death can result very quickly in cases of cold water immersion.

Hypothermia can occur when land temperatures are above freezing or water temperatures are below 98.6 F or 37 C (normal body temperature). Cold-related illnesses can slowly overcome a person who has been chilled by low temperatures, brisk winds or wet clothing. Danger signs include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue and confused behavior. If these signs are observed, call for emergency help.

To help protect workers in cold environments, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is reminding employers and workers to take simple precautions, such as those listed on OSHA's Cold Stress Card.

OSHA's Cold Stress Card provides recommendations that can prevent many illnesses and injuries. Available in English and Spanish, this laminated fold-up card is free to employers to distribute to their workers. It offers a quick reference about frost bite and hypothermia, including warning signs and prevention tips, such as:

  • Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses/injuries and what to do to help workers.
  • Train workers about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Encourage workers to wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions. Layer clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures. Wear a hat and gloves, in addition to underwear that will keep water away from the skin (polypropylene).
  • Be sure that workers take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
  • Try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day.
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • Use the buddy system - work in pairs so that one worker can recognize danger signs in the other.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas or hot chocolate) or alcohol.
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods such as hot pasta dishes.
  • Remember, workers face increased risks when they take certain medications, are in poor physical condition or suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

For free copies of OSHA's Cold Stress Card in English or Spanish, go to OSHA's Web site at www.osha.gov, then click on "Newsroom," followed by "Publications." Fill out the order form online, and fax your request to Publications at (202)693-2498. You can also call (202)693-1888 or write to: U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA, OSHA Publications, PO Box 37535 Washington, D.C. 20013-7535.

Additional information about cold and cold hazards can be found on OSHA's Web site and at the Web sites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (www.cdc.gov) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (www.cdc.gov/niosh).

edited by Sandy Smith

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