Preventing Cold Stress While Preserving Productivity
The right employer intervention and selecting the proper cold-weather PPE keep workers safe, warm and productive.
- By Sarina McCranie
- Sep 06, 2023
If there weren’t already enough hazards involved in working on a busy job site, winter weather makes a tough, physically demanding job even harder. Cold temperatures attack winter workers, stealing away body heat, risking their safety and productivity and making it harder to pay attention.
Your team can overpower the intimidation of cold temperatures if they understand the signs of cold stress and have the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and winter workwear to overcome it.
How Cold is Too Cold?
Cold stress occurs when the body must work harder to maintain its normal temperature. When internal body temperature drops below 95°F (35°C), the risk of hypothermia, frostbite and other cold-related injuries increases rapidly.
Because people in cold environments lose heat in several ways, workers need head-to-toe protection to stay warm, safe and productive.
There are five ways the cold attacks workers:
1. Radiation. The first way freezing temperatures steal body heat is through radiation. Any exposed skin will radiate body heat away, making your workers feel the effects of the cold more quickly.
2. Convection. You might think of it as wind-chill; in technical terms, it’s convection that makes a windy winter day on the job feel extra cold for workers. Whether it’s a steady breeze or a gusty nor’easter, wind displaces the layer of warmer air near the skin.
3. Conduction. Heat loss from conduction1 occurs when workers touch a colder object, such as holding metal tools, standing on a cold concrete floor, or walking on an ice-crusted road.
4. Evaporation. In summer, sweating is a good thing because sweat evaporating from the skin helps to cool the body. In winter, sweating inside your insulated gear increases the risk of cold stress because the body is losing valuable heat to evaporation.
5. Respiration. Just the simple act of breathing also puts workers at risk for heat loss through respiration. Breathing in bitterly cold air is a painful distraction from the job and can lower the body’s core temperature.
Understanding all five ways in which workers can experience heat loss helps employers provide PPE that is best suited to each employee’s job function and work environment.
How to Recognize Cold Stress on the Job
Understanding the risks of cold stress and cold-related illnesses can make the difference between injuries and safety, delayed projects and peak productivity, and possibly even life and death on the job site.
When body temperature drops because of cold winter weather or a cold work environment, cold stress sets in, and more serious issues like hypothermia and frostbite aren’t far behind.
Cold stress starts a progressive downward spiral in worker attention, reaction times and personal health. In many cases, the worker is focused on the task at hand and doesn’t realize they’re experiencing cold stress until their mobility becomes restricted, they lose coordination, and their ability to operate equipment or machinery is impaired.
When workers can no longer remain alert, the safety and productivity of everyone on the job site could be at risk. Here are the cold stress symptoms that every employee working in cold environments should be able to identify:
- Lack of concentration
- Lack of alertness or delayed reaction time
- Impaired mobility
- Loss of speech
- Cold, tingling, stinging or aching in areas followed by numbness
- Change in skin color from red to purple to white or pale in color
Learning how to recognize symptoms of cold stress and making sure your employees know how to handle will help you reduce or eliminate cold-related injuries.
Prevent Cold-Related Accidents, Injuries and Productivity Losses
Working through winter’s worst weather is certainly not for the weak. Your team might be tough enough to take on the cold and shovel up whatever weather Old Man Winter dishes out, but they still need the support of their employer to get the job done.
Start by training your team to recognize environmental and workplace hazards that could lead to cold-stress accidents or injuries. Assign a team member to keep an eye on the weather and working conditions at the job site so you can adjust daily productivity standards or plan to work on alternate projects when severe winter weather is expected.
Next, train everyone working on cold winter job sites to recognize the signs of cold stress. Enforcing the use of a buddy system ensures that there’s always one employee looking out for another. Make sure they treat serious cases of cold stress with the same policies you’d have them follow for medical emergencies. Recognizing that a coworker is in trouble and acting swiftly is the best way to prevent the situation from escalating to frostbite, hypothermia, or worse.
Consider adjusting your break time policies to offer workers more frequent respites from the cold for the duration of the winter season or if long hours in the blast freezer are needed. Whether you supply an indoor warming area or allow outdoor workers to take their breaks in a warm vehicle, keeping them safe from the effects of cold stress will keep them more alert and more productive when break time is over.
You can also empower employees to take charge of their warmth and safety with simple training. Share the following 10 tips with your teams so they’ll be prepared to stay productive in extremely cold conditions:
1. Choose insulated workwear based on your environment. Match your insulation level to the weather or working conditions. Overdressing for the cold is just as risky as underdressing for it.
2. Choose workwear based on your activity level. More active workers need less insulation. Less active workers need more.
3. Protect bare skin. Cover all areas exposed to cold, wetness and wind, including neck, ears, and face.
4. Layer your clothing so you can adjust during the workday. The inner layer should wick sweat away from the skin. The mid-layer adds warmth and the outer layer should block wind and wet conditions.
5. Choose clothing that fits properly. Clothing that is too loose adds bulk and lets in cold drafts. Clothing that is too tight limits mobility and restricts blood flow, making you feel colder.
6. Don’t let sweat build up. Getting wet means getting cold. Remove a layer when you start sweating.
7. Drink more water and less caffeine. Staying hydrated helps your body operate efficiently for maximum warmth.
8. Eat more. Your body works harder to maintain its temperature and to do your job when it’s cold, so you may burn calories quicker.
9. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Nicotine and alcohol reduce the body’s ability to regulate temperature, especially in the extremities.
10. Pay attention to your body. Get out of the cold if you experience symptoms of cold stress.
Reduce Your Risk with Cold Weather PPE
Whether you provide a uniform that includes insulated jackets, boots and other outerwear or you provide a stipend for employees to purchase their own winter gear, it’s important to know how to choose the cold-weather workwear that best suits the needs of each employee and the demands of the job.
First, consider the temperature range on your job site. Then, look for insulated workwear tested and proven for those conditions. Some manufacturers provide a temperature rating for jackets, coveralls, boots and gloves, and that can be helpful in choosing PPE that provides the right level of protection from the cold.
Workers also need gear that holds up to daily wear and tear, so durability is vital. Look for gear made with durable, abrasion-resistant fabrics, heavy-duty zippers and rivet reinforcements at stress points. Snag-free, water-repellent fabrics also provide protection from wet conditions and keep the gear looking great for longer, which means it won’t need to be replaced frequently.
The toughest winter gear in the world does no good if it’s so bulky and heavy that you can’t do your job. Synthetic insulation is thinner, lighter and warmer than traditional insulating materials, such as down. Look for lightweight insulation that keeps your employees warm without limiting their mobility or range of motion.
When you’ve got the basics of warmth, durability and weight covered, look for special features in insulated workwear that help your employees work better. For example, look for flexible stretch panels at elbows and underarms to give you a wider range of motion, or look for silicone grip patterns on sleeves or gloves that strengthen their grip on boxes or bulky items.
With a little training and the right insulated workwear, your employees will be ready to outlast and outwork the cold all winter long.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.