Dealing with cold stress – inside and outside
By Dorothy Wigmore
Temperatures hover near freezing during the day and below it at night. Snowstorms are predicted. Or maybe it’s freezing rain.
It’s winter! With it come cold temperatures—inside and outside school buildings. Outside, it’s harder to drive, to hold onto things, to walk or work in our usual way. Inside, heating systems may not work well, windows frost up and no one wants to touch uninsulated walls.
It doesn’t have to be below freezing for people to get cold stress or injuries. These can occur in the 40s, depending on conditions and time in the environment. What matters are cold temperatures or water, dampness/humidity, and/or cold or strong wind.
Cold temperatures and wind speed combine to produce “wind chill.” (See the chart.) Time also matters (e.g., it takes 10 to 30 minutes to get frostbite at a wind chill of minus 18 to minus 38).
Whatever the combination, our bodies try to stay warm. If it’s difficult, skin temperature decreases as less blood flows to hands, feet and other extremities to protect the torso and maintain core temperature. Without enough blood and the muscles needed to produce heat, extremities cool quickly.
What makes it likely?
We don’t adapt much to the cold, unlike acclimatizing to heat. It’s harder for those from warmer climates, people with circulatory health issues or previous cold-related injuries. Using alcohol, nicotine or some medications (e.g., for anxiety, depression, nausea) and some physical conditions (e.g., low thyroid hormone, diabetes, being underweight) also can increase susceptibility to cold.
Those with “white hand” or Raynaud’s syndrome may react to a cold surface near freezing. Studies also show that women working on cold food processing lines have more painful or disrupted periods. (Reported temperatures ranged from below freezing to the mid 40s F.)
Women’s core body temperatures cool more slowly than men’s. But their hands and feet cool faster and they usually don’t create internal (metabolic) heat as easily as men with exercise or shivering. That makes it harder for women to withstand the cold and explains why men and women often disagree about temperature settings.
Hydration is connected to heat loss. Dehydration makes cold injuries more likely.
How does cold affect us?
Colder temperatures affect our ability to think clearly and do things. Fingers are less able to do fine movements. When it’s quite cold, our muscles don’t work as well and joints stiffen. Just like heat hazards, the effects go from manageable to severe and fatal. Common effects and what to do about them include:
|Condition||What’s happening||What to do?|
|Frostnip||Skin freezes (mild frostbite). Looks yellowish, white but still soft, tingles or burns.||Do not rub/massage. Warm gradually. Get out of cold.|
|Chilblains||Nonfreezing cold + damp/ humidity. Itchy, painful, reddish/ purplish swelling, usually on fingers, toes, nose, ears.||Remove/dry whatever’s damp/wet. Warm up. Apply lotion. Often re-occurs.|
|Trench foot||Feet immersed in cold water for long time. Looks like frostnip.||Remove wet socks, footwear. Air dry. Then same as for frostnip.|
|Frostbite||Skin and tissue just under it freeze. Looks white, waxy. Feels hard, numb. Can be serious, lead to amputation.||Warm gradually using body heat, warm water in space where can keep warm. No direct heat.|
|Hypothermia||Body loses heat faster than it’s produced. Shivering, confusion, less muscle control. Heart can stop.||Get medical help ASAP. Get person in warmer space, remove wet clothing, warm them gradually and slowly.|
What prevents cold stress?
There are many useful resources about preventing cold-related injuries, illnesses and death. (See below.)
While there is no cold stress standard, OSHA reminds employers about their general duty to protect workers. It expects employers to train workers and provide protections from the cold. New Jersey’s PEOSH enforces OSHA rules.
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist and WEC consultant. She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards. These days, she is writing Transmission Truth?, a book about workers’ experiences in the pandemic.
What should employers do?
- Work with the health and safety committee on plans (buddy systems, supervision, severe weather, emergencies, driving, working alone, bus routes, schedules, warming areas/shelters, work near/on water, etc.).
- Consult guidance from the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), recognizing recommendations are a minimum.
- Train staff about the hazards, recognizing cold stress signs/symptoms, cold work procedures, winter driving, protective gear, first aid.
- Provide protective gear, heaters, warming areas, appropriate schedules, emergency kits, equipment adapted for use in the cold (e.g., nonmetal handle covers).
- Keep inside school spaces at 68 F or more, with fresh and filtered air.
- Evaluate plans, training.
What should health and safety commities do?
- Survey members about cold conditions, report results.
- Research, gather resources.
- Work with the district on a severe weather and other plans using the survey results, resources.
- Press for at least 68 F in school spaces, using the Indoor Air Quality standard – file a PEOSH complaint if necessary.
- Have a thermometer “stash” for members.
And for members?
- Make plans for driving, working alone, emergencies, etc.
- Work with the health and safety committee for training, protective gear to prevent cold stress.
- Dress for it. Wool, silk and most synthetics insulate even when wet; cotton doesn’t. Layer up with loose-fitting clothing.
- Expect to do less or take longer to do something.
- Keep moving. Avoid drafts as best as possible.
- Keep fluids up with soup or warm drinks (no alcohol or caffeine).
- Stay dry. Have dry clothes handy.
- Take breaks in warm areas.
National Weather Service
When the weather turns severe: A guide to developing a severe weather emergency plan for schools bit.ly/3s18Cti
New Jersey Work Environment Council
Schools with comfortable temperatures bit.ly/3gfikTy
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Cold stress (various materials) bit.ly/3HolS1y
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Cold environments bit.ly/3L1FlHx
Wind chill bit.ly/3LdepVB (Note: temperatures are Celsius)