Preventing Cold Stress While Preserving Productivity

Preventing Cold Stress While Preserving Productivity

The right employer intervention and selecting the proper cold-weather PPE keep workers safe, warm and productive.

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.

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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