Working outside in cold weather can be uncomfortable. It can also be dangerous. On very cold days, employees should take adequate precautions to prevent cold-related illnesses including frostbite and hypothermia.
The First Signs of Frostbite
Since your body prioritizes keeping your internal organs warm, blood flow to your extremities decreases—blood flow that is vital to keeping that tissue alive. The fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin are the areas most likely to be affected by frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the skin and the tissue just below the skin freeze, leading to cell death and possibly irreversible damage, with severe cases resulting in amputation.
The first signs and symptoms of frostbite are:
- Tingling, stinging, or aching feeling
- Changes in skin color from red to purple to white and, eventually, blue
What You Should Do
If you are feeling the first signs of frostbite, get into a warm area as soon as possible. Wrap the affected area in a warm cloth or use a hot pack. Using body heat to warm the affected area is also effective, for example tucking cold fingers under your armpit. If the concerned extremity is your hands or feet, you may immerse them in warm water.
More Extreme Exposure: Hypothermia
In extreme cold, your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it, resulting in a drop in body temperature called hypothermia. This can result in a medical emergency, so it is important to react as soon as possible.
The signs and symptoms of hypothermia are:
- Lack of coordination—dropping things or tripping
- Slurred speech
- Memory loss
- Pale skin
- Rapid heart rate and/or breathing
What You Should Do
If you are feeling any signs of hypothermia, get to a warm area as soon as possible. At this point, you don’t just need to stop heat loss, you need to warm up your core temperature. Remove wet clothes and cover your body and head with dry clothes and blankets. Sip a warm, sugary drink, and stay lightly active.
The best treatment is to avoid frostbite and hypothermia altogether. Dressing appropriately for freezing temperatures, keeping extra clothes in the vehicle for cold snaps, and taking warm-up breaks inside or in a warm vehicle are all effective in avoiding cold work hazards.
A very low body temperature affects the brain, so people often will not notice the symptoms of hypothermia in themselves. Look out for your co-workers in cold conditions. Are they fumbling? Do they seem confused? Is their skin noticeably pale? Usher them into a warm place and help them follow the above protocols for recovery.