Prolonged blasts of arctic air throughout much of Eastern United States in December and January have reminded us just how severe and dangerous winter weather can be, especially for those who find themselves outdoors in it.
Anyone exposed to extreme cold, such as in a work environment, may be at risk of cold stress – when body heat is lost faster than it can be produced. What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary from region to region. That means that in places typically unaccustomed to wintry weather, even near-freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. Such weather-related conditions may lead to serious health problems.
OSHA's Cold Stress Guide at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/emergencypreparedness/guides/cold.html offers a number of tips for avoiding cold stress on the job, while reminding employers of their responsibility to keep workers safe under Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
According to the guide, “Employers should train workers on how to prevent and recognize cold stress illnesses and injuries and how to apply first aid treatment. Workers should be trained on the appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment and work practices to reduce the risk of cold stress.”
Some of these are common sense practices, like wearing inner and outer layers of clothing to stay both dry and warm, donning a hat and/or hood, and putting on waterproof and insulated gloves and boots.
Others involve taking frequent breaks in a warm area, working in pairs so either one might spot danger signs, and notifying a supervisor or calling for medical help immediately if a worker has signs or symptoms of hypothermia or another cold-related illness or injury.
Still others involve engineering controls like providing radiant heaters to warm workers in outdoor security stations, and where possible, shielding work areas from drafts or wind to cut down on wind chill.
Perhaps the two most salient points in OSHA’s Cold Stress Guide are recommendations that both employers and employees be proactive and alert, both good practices for dealing with winter – and workplace safety – in general.