Working in Cold Weather

Winter is here, and with the cold weather comes the danger of cold weather injuries.  Everyone can be affected by extremely cold temperatures, particularly when there are high winds included, also know as the “wind chill factor”.  Prolonged exposure to freezing or cold temperatures may cause serious health problems such as frostbite and hypothermia.  In extreme cases, including cold water immersion, exposure can lead to death.   However, the risk can be greatly reduced by taking some common sense steps.

Hypothermiathe most severe type of cold injury, occurs when the body temperature falls below 95˚F.  About 700 Americans die each year from hypothermia.  Symptoms may include:

  • uncontrollable shivering
  • cold, pale skin
  • numbness
  • fatigue
  • poor circulation
  • disorientation
  • slurred speech
  • bluish or puffy skin
  • discoloration of lips
  • stiff muscles

When this occurs, This is an emergency, Get medical attention immediately!

  • Move the person indoors an remove wet clothing
  • Place the victim between blankets so the body temperature can rise gradually.  (body to body contact can help warm the person’s temperature slowly)
  • DO NOT use hot water bottles or electric blankets
  • DO NOT rub area or apply dry heat
  • DO NOT allow the victim to drink alcohol or smoke
  • If the person appears unconscious, call 911 and start CPR if necessary

Another cold weather risk is frostbite.  Frostbite refers to actual freezing and subsequent destruction of body tissue which is likely to occur any time skin temperature gets much below 32˚F.  The areas most likely to freeze are toes, fingers, ears, cheeks and the tip of the nose.  Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • gradual numbness
  • hardness and paleness of the affected area during exposure
  • pain and tingling or burning in affected area following warming
  • possible change of skin color to purple
  • as frostbite progresses, skin becomes white and waxy/grayish yellow and is hard to the touch

Get medical attention.  Frostbite can be serious, and can result in amputation.

  • If possible, move the victim to a warm area
  • Gently loosen or remove tight clothing or jewelry that may restrict circulation
  • Warm the affected area slowly using body heat. Blow warm breath onto the affected area or tuck your hands into your armpits.  CAUTION: If the affected area might be refrozen before medical help arrives, do not warm, this greatly increases the risk of tissue damage.
  • DO NOT allow the victim to drink alcohol or smoke

The best way to avoid cold injuries is to be prepared.  Tips for working in cold environments are:

  • Wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions.
  • Workers should dress in layers so that they can add insulation when not active. Layers can be removed during heavy physical activity in order to prevent overheating and dehydration.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses and injuries and what to do to help others.
  • When working in extreme conditions take a frequent short break in warm dry shelters to allow body to warm up.
  • 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.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas, hot chocolate or alcohol)
  • 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.

OSHA’s Cold Stress Card provides a reference guide and recommendations to combat and prevent many illnesses and injuries.  For copies of OSHA’s Cold Stress Card in English or Spanish, go to OSHA’s website,, or call 1(800) 321-OSHA.  This laminated fold-up card is free to employers, workers and the public.


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