Managing Cold Stress with the Proper PPE

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Managing Cold Stress with the Proper PPE

No matter the type of work, any worker exposed to cold temperatures faces risks.

As the seasons turnover to the colder months, safety managers transition their mindset from managing heat stress for their workers to the opposite phenomenon—cold stress. Cold stress refers to environmental conditions (such as air temperature, windchill temperature and rain) in which body heat is lost faster than the body can produce it. Low temperatures and high wind speeds that are common during the winter months are a dangerous combination. These weather conditions expedite the rate at which heat leaves the body, increasing the risk of cold stress for outdoor workers.  

Workers who may be affected by cold stress are wide ranging, from those on construction sites to oil and gas operators performing maintenance work. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), extreme cold weather is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies. And what is considered cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country, making it critical for employers to recognize their employees’ working environments. For example, in parts of the country relatively unfamiliar to cold winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. No matter the type of work, any worker exposed to cold temperatures faces risks. Two of the most common kinds of cold stress include hypothermia and frostbite.  

The National Weather Service states that hypothermia is the most common cause of winter weather fatalities and occurs when body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2019, about 1,300 people in the U.S. died of hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include severe shivering, confusion, slurred speech, slow heart rate or slow breathing and loss of consciousness.  

Frostbite is another winter hazard that workers may be exposed to while working in harsh environments. Frostbite is a condition where the skin and body tissue begins to freeze, starting in the extremities with limited blood circulation. Symptoms workers should look out for include numbness, reddened skin, grey or white patches on the skin, firmness of the skin and blistering.  

Cold-related disorders such as hypothermia and frostbite are real risks workers can face on the job unless safety measures are taken seriously. The good news is that there are steps workers can take to keep themselves protected, including working during the warmest part of the day, keeping active, staying hydrated, avoiding prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures, covering all exposed skin and dressing in warm layers. In addition, OSHA recommends workers prevent cold stress with appropriate PPE. Depending on work conditions, it is important for employers to consider providing the following PPE to keep their workers safe in extreme temperatures. 

Layered Outerwear 

First and foremost, workers need to make sure they are wearing layers of warm clothing. But some workers may wonder how many layers and which materials are best. As a rule of thumb, protective clothing should be selected according to temperature, weather conditions such as wind speed, the duration of outdoor activity and the level of intensity of the job that will be performed. This is because the level of perspiration generated while working dictates the layering. In general, multiple layers are better than a single thick garment so that workers have the option to remove layers if they begin to sweat or add layers if taking a break or performing less strenuous tasks.  

The inner layer should provide insulation and keep moisture away from the skin, to keep it dry. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and polypropylene, are two materials that fit this purpose. On the other hand, the outer layer should be waterproof and should have openings to allow perspiration to escape and evaporate. 

Warm Gloves 

To protect fingers from frostbite, gloves are a critical part of cold-weather PPE. To be most effective, they should balance protection, flexibility and dexterity—even at very low temperatures. When selecting gloves for work in cold weather, look for options with a winter lining suitable for temperatures down to negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture-wicking fabric for sweat management is also critical to help keep workers on the job dry. Lastly, the material of the outer shell of gloves is also important. Look for options that are cut resistant with multilayer palm fabrics for protection and grip.  

Insulated Anti-Slip Boots 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2017, there were more than 20,000 workplace injuries due to ice, sleet and snow. Because of this increased risk of slipping in the colder months, work boots with anti-slip rubber soles are crucial for winter safety footwear. Felt-lined boots for insulation are recommended, and leather-topped boots with removable felt insoles are also great for sweat evaporation as leather is porous and allows feet to “breathe.” When it comes to socks, liner socks made of synthetic materials are one of the best options to keep feet dry and keep sweat away from the skin. 

Fall Protection  

Snow, sleet and ice not only multiply the number of slippery surfaces in the work environment, but they also pose threats for workers at height. A surface under construction that is weighed down by snow should be inspected by a professional before work begins to make sure it is structurally sound and to avoid risks of it collapsing. Rooftops covered in snow can also hide features such as skylights that workers can potentially fall through if the proper precautions are not taken. For these reasons, employers should consider the need for a comprehensive fall protection system for workers at height as well as training for workers and site inspection protocols to help ensure worksites are safe for entry.  

Winter Eyewear  

To stay safe in the cold, workers may initially focus on the precautions listed above and make sure they have proper gloves, boots and layered clothing. But there is another piece of cold-weather equipment that should not be overlooked: eye protection. Outdoor work in the winter can expose the eyes to low temperatures, which can cause pain and blurred vision; wind, which can blow snow, rain and debris in the eyes; and glare from snow, ice and other reflective surfaces, which can impair vision and cause eye fatigue. By using these eyewear tips, workers can help protect their vision in cold environments.  

Extra face coverage. Goggles and sealed eyewear create a shield for the eyes, forehead and upper cheeks, providing warmth and coverage in the cold.  

Comfortable fit with other PPE. Most goggles and sealed eyewear have wide and/or adjustable headbands to fit many head sizes, while keeping the lens secure on the face. The headband can also be used over hats, hoods or other head protection.  

Features for clear vision. Prevent fogging with a premium anti-fog lens coating that does not wash off, as well as vented frames that create airflow.  

Tinted lenses. Choose goggles and sealed eyewear with optional lens tinting to reduce brightness from sun and glare.  

Soft foam. For warmth and comfort all shift long, find frames with soft, dense foam around the face. 

As we enter the winter months this year, it is a good reminder that no matter how cold the weather gets, trusted PPE providers can help keep workers warm and protected. Not only that, but by having the right equipment, it boosts productivity as well. When workers are safe and comfortable for long shifts, even in tough and cold environments, they are more likely to be engaged and confident in their tasks, performing them correctly and efficiently. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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