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Posted on: December 12, 2016 By: Trevor Atherton, Safety Mgr

Cold Related Illnesses & Injuries

Many construction jobs expose employees to cold temperatures during the winter months.  It important that employees know how to protect themselves, the signs and symptoms of cold related injuries or illnesses and what to do if they occur.  Cold related illnesses can slowly overcome a person who has been chilled.  The three factors to consider when determining if cold related injuries or illness could occur are low temperatures, wind speed and wetness.  The following are cold related illnesses and injuries and how workers can protect themselves.

Frostbite – Freezing in deep layers of the skin and tissue.   Skin becomes hard and numb and looks pale or waxy-white in color.  It usually affects the fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears and nose.

If frostbite occurs:  Move the person to a warm dry area, do not leave the person alone.  Remove any wet or tight clothing that may cut off blood flow to the affected area.  Do not rub the affected area (rubbing causes damage to the skin and tissue).  Gently place the affected area in warm water and monitoring the water temperature to slowly warm the tissue, do not pour warm water directly on the affect area (warming takes 25 to 40 minutes).  After the affected area has been warmed it may become puffy and blister, the affected area may have a burning feeling or numbness, when normal feeling, movement and skin color have returned, the affected area should be dried and wrapped to keep it warm.  If there is a chance the affected area may get cold again, do not warm the skin.  Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Hypothermia – The normal body temperature (98.6 degrees F) drops to or below 95 degrees F.  Signs and symptoms include fatigue or drowsiness, uncontrolled shivering, cool bluish skin, slurred speech, clumsy movements or irritable, irrational or confused behavior.  If hypothermia occurs:  Call for emergency help immediately.   Move the person to a warm, dry area.  Do not leave the person alone.  Remove any wet clothing and replace with warm, dry clothing or wrap the person in blankets.  Have the person drink warm, sweet drinks, like sugar water or sport drinks, if they are alert.  Avoid drinks with caffeine, like coffee, tea or hot chocolate, or alcohol.  Have the person move their arms and legs to create muscle heat.  If they are unable to do this, place warm bottles or hot packs in the arm pits, groin, neck and head areas.  Do not rub the person’s body or place them in a warm water bath, this could cause the heart to stop.

Employees can protect themselves by:

  • Recognizing the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms or cold-induced illness/injuries and what to do to help the worker.
  • Select 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.
  • Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
  • Perform work during the warmest part of the day, if possible.
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • Use the buddy system.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages, like sugar water or sport drinks.  Avoid drinks with caffeine, like coffee, tea or hot chocolate, or alcohol.
  • Eat warm, high calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.

Employees are at an increased risk when:

  • They have predisposing health condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.
  • They take certain medication.  Check with your doctor, nurse or pharmacy and ask if any medicines you are taking affect you while working in cold environments.
  • They are in poor physical condition, have a poor diet, or are older.

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