Staffing Resource Toolbox – Winter Work Hazards: Cold Stress

With the extreme and record cold temps that have engulfed the Midwest over this past week, it is important employers to know what they need to do to protect their employees.  OSHA provides a Winter Weather Guide about the hazards and what to do to prevent and how to react.  These responsibilities to protect workers falls not only on the employer, but on the supervisors, managers, foremen and employees too.

What is Cold Stress?

What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for “cold stress.” Increased wind speed also causes heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness, even from body sweat, also facilitates heat loss from the body. Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Types of cold stress include: trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.  For more information, see OSHA’s Cold Stress Information or OSHA’s Cold Stress Safety and Health Guide.

How Can Cold Stress be Prevented?

Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.

Employers should train workers. Training should include:
– How to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress.
– The symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do to help those who are affected.
– How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.

Employers should:
– Monitor workers physical condition.
– Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas, to allow the body to warm up.
– Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
– Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
– Provide warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with alcohol.
– Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) developed the following Work/Warm-up Schedule for a 4-hour shift takes both air temperature and wind speed into account, to provide recommendations on scheduling work breaks and ceasing non-emergency work.

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