Illinois Cold Stress
OSHA, the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration, warns Illinois employers that employees can be injured by exposure to cold weather in the workplace, even at as mild a temperature of 50 degrees.
With the recent winter storms in the Midwest which knocked out power for nearly a month, Illinois employers and those across the nation need to be aware that cold weather exposure can cause cold stress, frostbite and hypothermia.
Outdoor workers are particularly susceptible to cold weather hazards, but with winter upon the country, all employees could be at some level of risk according to OSHA.
Cold stress is a condition where the body can no longer warm itself. The colder the temperature, the more the body works to create body heat. All internal organs are given priority, which means that blood is taken away from the outer limbs. In these cases, ears, the nose, feet, hands, toes and fingers are in great risk of frostbite.
Hypothermia is a serious drop in body temperature, and can be fatal. Cold stress is a less serious form of hypothermia. In severe cases, however, cold stress can cause permanent injury and can result in death.
Certain workers need to be aware that they may be more susceptible to these cold weather related illnesses. Older employees, employees on sedatives or tranquilizers, and those on antidepressants may be at greater risk. Medications can interfere with the body’s ability to warm itself, and as people age, their bodies become less efficient at keeping warm.
A few simple safety measures can help all employees prevent these cold weather illnesses. All employees should dress for the weather. Wet and windy conditions, even at 50 degrees can cause cold stress, so workers should dress appropriately. Layers of clothing are recommended, as is having extra clothing on hand in case something gets wet.
Workers should also take lots of breaks and go inside, or to a warm area out of the wind, wet and cold. Warm drinks like broth are recommended, as are warm meals rich in carbohydrates.
Workers should avoid alcohol and all caffeine drinks. Both diminish the body’s ability to warm up.
Cold weather can expose workers to several cold-related injuries and illnesses. The federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the Illinois OSHA recently issued alerts warning of the dangers of Cold Stress and Trench Foot in the workplace.
Cold stress occurs when the body is unable to warm itself. Mild cases can be usually be treated by moving the employee to a warm, dry area. Severe cases can lead to hypothermia, however, which can be fatal.
Trench Foot is similar to frostbite, but less severe and was first named in World War I. Soldiers fighting that war often stood for long periods of time in trenches that were filled with water. This exposure to the water caused the soldiers’ feet to itch, burn and blister–similar to the conditions of frostbite. Trench Foot is a sign of cold stress and can put employees at risk for injury.
Preventing Cold Stress and Trench Foot requires the employees to take certain steps.
First, all workers must dress appropriately for the weather, especially those employees who work outside. OSHA recommends dressing in at least three layers, with the outer layer made of fabric to specifically cut the effects of wind. Second, all workers should wear hats. Third, footwear should be insulated and waterproof.
Even in milder temperatures, water and wind can significantly lower the body’s temperature. Wind chill, the combination of temperature and wind speed can make the skin feel colder than what is on the thermometer. Stronger winds mean colder wind chills, and colder body temperatures.
In addition to dressing properly, employees can watch each other for symptoms of cold stress by working in pairs. At the first signs of cold stress, the worker should move out of the cold and remove any wet clothing. Dry clothing, if available, should replace the wet ones, or the worker should be wrapped in warm blankets. Give the employee warm beverages, but nothing that contains alcohol or caffeine. Both of these substances can interfere with the body’s capability of staying warm.
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