Injuries and Illness, Personnel Safety

Cold Work Hazards Include Frostbite, Hypothermia, and … Carbon Monoxide

Two federal agencies have issued warnings about the hazards of working in cold weather. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reminded employers and workers that frostbite and hypothermia can occur when working in cold, wet, icy, or snowy conditions. And OSHA reminded employers about the carbon monoxide (CO) hazards of using portable generators, fuel-burning space heaters, and other equipment.

Snow blower in winter

Nick Starichenko /

Winter CO Hazards

“Every year, carbon monoxide poisoning claims the lives of employees nationwide, usually when fuel-burning equipment and tools are used in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation,” OSHA said in a public statement.

“The danger increases during the winter months when this type of equipment is used in indoor areas that have been sealed tightly to block out cold temperatures and wind,” according to the agency.

Fuel-burning portable generators and space heaters are common sources of carbon monoxide, as is anything that uses combustion to operate, such as:

  • Compressors,
  • Furnaces,
  • Gas-powered forklifts and other motorized vehicles,
  • Power tools,
  • Pumps, and
  • Welding equipment.

OSHA said employers should install effective ventilation systems, avoid using fuel-burning equipment and vehicles in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, and use carbon monoxide detectors in areas where CO hazards may exist.

Frostbite, Hypothermia, Trench Foot

NIOSH warned that working in cold-weather conditions can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot, which can include tissue damage. NIOSH encouraged employers to schedule cold work for the warmest part of the day and suggested relief workers may need to be assigned for long jobs to limit individual workers’ exposure.

The institute also pointed out that the conditions that lead to cold stress can vary throughout the country.

“In regions where workers are unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress,” according to NIOSH.
Workers at risk for cold stress include:

  • Construction workers,
  • Farmers,
  • Police officers,
  • Sanitation workers, and
  • Snow cleanup crews.

The ears, fingers, nose, and toes are vulnerable to frostbite. Warning signs include numbness, pain, stinging, or tingling on or near the affected body part. Tissue damage may occur when a body part freezes.

In cold temperatures, the body can lose heat faster than it can be produced, resulting in hypothermia, an extremely low body temperature.

Early symptoms of hypothermia include confusion, disorientation, fatigue, loss of coordination, or shivering. Hypothermia affects the brain, making it difficult for a person to think clearly.

Trench foot occurs when feet are wet and cold for too long. Moisture can cause the feet to lose heat, which can slow the flow of blood to the feet and damage tissue.

Cold Weather Precautions

NIOSH recommended that workers take the following precautions to counteract the hazards of cold-weather work:

  • Wear several layers of loose clothing; layering provides better insulation.
  • Protect ears, face, hands, and feet by wearing a hat and waterproof gloves and boots.
  • Carry cold weather gear, such as extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, a change of clothes, as well as an insulated container of hot liquid.
  • Take breaks in warm locations, such as inside a vehicle or other sheltered or heated area.
  • Monitor their own physical condition and that of their coworkers.
  • Pay attention to warning signs and symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot.