Are you aware of and prepared for the hazards of winter? State and federal agencies were focused on heat stress after the Pacific Northwest’s heat dome last summer. We also saw renewed action on a federal heat stress standard. However, winter has its own hazards, like frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot. It also can include unexpected events like the mid-December tornadoes in the South Central United States.
Chilblains, frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot are the most common hazards for employees working in cold, icy, snowy, or wet conditions. However, workers may also face risks of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the use of portable generators, fuel-burning space heaters, and other equipment.
The workers most at risk for cold stress or injury are construction workers; farmers and farmworkers; firefighters, police officers, and other emergency responders; sanitation workers; and snow cleanup crews.
You should be aware that the effects of cold weather can vary by region. Near- or below-freezing temperatures that workers in northern regions of the country may be prepared for can present a risk to workers unaccustomed to winter weather. You may need to address cold weather hazards even at facilities and worksites in the Sunbelt.
As a practice, you should schedule cold work for the warmest part of the day, and you may even want to assign more workers on long jobs to limit individual workers’ exposure to cold, icy, snowy, or wet conditions.
Ensure your workers take commonsense precautions to protect themselves from cold weather hazards, such as wearing several layers of loose clothing; layering provides better insulation, but tight clothing can interfere with proper circulation. Exposed limbs and heads are major areas of heat loss, making proper clothing essential. A worker’s head and trunk should be warm enough to maintain circulation through the blood vessels in the hands and feet. Additionally, make sure your employees keep enough blood flowing to the hands and feet to prevent frostbite. Extreme cases of frostbite can lead to amputation.
You also should ensure that your employees:
- Carry cold weather gear like blankets, as well as a change of clothing, extra socks, gloves, a hat, and a jacket in the event clothing becomes wet or damp from rain, melting snow, or sweat.
- Monitor themselves and coworkers for warning signs and symptoms of chilblains, frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot.
- Protect their extremities, including ears, face, hands, and feet, by wearing hats, gloves, and waterproof boots.
- Take breaks in warm spaces, such as inside a vehicle or a sheltered or heated area.
Chilblains, frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot
Chilblains can lead to permanent and potentially serious injuries. Chilblains, or “chill burns,” are ulcers formed when small blood vessels under the skin are damaged, which can occur from skin exposure to temperatures ranging from just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Signs of chilblains include redness and itching and typically occur on cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes. In severe cases, there may be skin ulceration, and tissue damage can be permanent.
If workers experience chilblains, they need to slowly warm the skin, avoid scratching, and use corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling. Redness and itching can return with additional exposures. Blisters and skin ulcers need to be cleaned and covered.
To prevent chilblains, you need to ensure your workers wear several layers of loose clothing for insulation because tight clothing reduces blood circulation to the extremities. They should also wear hats to reduce the loss of body heat through the head, and their boots should be insulated and waterproof.
Frostbite is an injury to a body part, typically the cheeks and chin, ears, fingers, nose, and toes, caused by freezing. Frostbite results in a loss of feeling and color in the affected area, and warning signs include numbness, pain, stinging, or tingling on or near the affected body part. It can permanently damage body tissue and, in extreme cases, lead to amputation.
You need to get a worker showing symptoms of frostbite into a warm room as soon as possible. Do not allow a worker to walk on frostbitten feet or toes, unless necessary, as it can increase tissue damage. Do not rub or massage the frostbitten area because doing so can cause further damage.
Have the worker immerse the affected area in warm, not hot, water—the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body. The Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH) Administration recommends rewarming limbs in stirred warm water at about 100 to 105 degrees F, just above normal body temperature.
Hypothermia, which can be fatal, happens when a worker’s body begins to lose heat quicker than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures eventually will use up all the body’s stored energy. Hypothermia can begin with uncontrollable shivering as a worker’s body temperature drops to 95 degrees F.
Mild symptoms of hypotherma include impaired speech or lack of coordination. An effected worker may even deny being in trouble, but you need to get the worker out of wet and windy weather and into a warm room, shelter, or vehicle. You also should remove any wet clothing and warm the worker from the center of the body to the extremities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends using an electric blanket or skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, or towels to warm the center of the worker’s body, including the chest, groin, head, and neck.
Other treatments for hypothermia include:
- Wrapping warm objects, such as rocks, hot water bottles, or heat packs, in towels or clothing; and
- Giving the affected worker warm beverages but only if the worker has regained a clear level of consciousness and the ability to swallow and already is starting to warm up because warm beverages can prevent further heat loss.
However, you may need to summon emergency medical services and arrange for evacuation if a worker fails to recover with first-aid measures.
Trench foot, or “immersion foot,” is a foot injury resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F if the feet are constantly wet. Wet feet lose heat 25 times quicker than dry feet. The body constricts blood vessels to prevent heat loss, shutting down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients and a buildup of toxins.
Workers suffering from trench foot should remove their boots or shoes and wet socks and dry their feet, as well as avoid walking, as being on their feet can cause tissue damage.
CO poisoning can be fatal, usually occurring when fuel-burning equipment or tools are used in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation. The dangers posed by fuel-burning equipment increase during winter months, when this type of equipment is used in indoor areas or other spaces sealed tightly to block out cold temperatures and wind.
Fuel-burning portable generators and space heaters are the most common sources of CO, but so, too, is any equipment that uses combustible fuel for operation, such as compressors, furnaces, gas-powered forklifts and other motorized vehicles, power tools, pumps, and welding equipment.
To counteract hazards posed by CO, you need to install effective ventilation systems, use CO detectors in areas where CO hazards may exist, and ensure your employees avoid using fuel-burning equipment and vehicles in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces.
A late-season tornado outbreak struck parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee December 10–11, 2021. Afterward, the Department of Labor dispatched response teams from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Wage and Hour Division to the area affected by tornadoes.
Before a tornado strikes, you need to have evacuation or shelter-in-place plans—this past December saw worker fatalities in tornado-damaged buildings.
You should also consult local government officials, the fire department, and your insurance provider and familiarize yourself with your local community’s emergency plans and designated shelters, along with any warning alarms, sirens, or other signals used in your area. An evacuation plan needs to specify which conditions would activate the plan.
Your plan also should specify a chain of command during an emergency, with designated emergency functions, including who will perform them. You need a list of names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of employees who can be contacted for additional information or explanations of employee duties under the plan.
The plan must detail evacuation procedures, with designated exits and routes and procedures for evacuating disabled personnel, as well as procedures for employees who must remain to perform critical plant operations. You also will need procedures in place to account for evacuated customers, employees, and visitors.
You also need equipment on hand for company personnel to secure the workplace, as well as a stockpile of emergency supplies if your emergency action plan includes having any workers shelter in place. Shelter-in-place supplies should include enough food, water, and other supplies for each worker to stay at your facility for at least 72 hours.
Tornado cleanup response workers may be at risk for injury due to the alterations in natural and built environments a tornado may have made, according to NIOSH. However, injuries and illnesses in cleanup duty are preventable.
NIOSH recommends creating a comprehensive disaster management plan covering
cleanup activities, resource management, and response-worker protection. The hazards of cleanup activities include:
- Air quality. Contaminants may have been dispersed and particles aerosolized during and after a tornado, and excessive dust and mold may be present in indoor environments.
- Diesel or gasoline-powered electrical generators can produce a buildup of CO in poorly ventilated spaces.
- Other disaster cleanup hazards can include electrical hazards, fire, hazardous materials, musculoskeletal hazards, structural instability, and thermal stress.
- Emergency and recovery workers face potential risks of falls from ladders.
- Recovery workers also are at risk of mosquito-borne illnesses and bites, scratches, and even rabies from displaced animals.
Response and recovery workers may need several types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including boots, gloves, goggles, head protection, overalls or other protective clothing, and respirators. PPE needs also may change during the course of cleanup activities as hazards change.
While you may not employ disaster response crews, you do need evacuation plans, and you need to protect employees from winter hazards.