Winter Weather Workplace Hazards

Posted on 11/4/2014 by James Griffin

As winter approaches, employers should be ready to protect workers from "cold stress," the primary environmental hazard workers face in colder months. "Cold stress" can result in frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot, all of which are all caused by uncontrolled reductions in body temperature. To protect employees, employers must know the risk factors for cold stress, its signs and symptoms, and how to respond when an employee may be suffering from it.

Risk Factors for Cold Stress

Environmental cold can reduce the body's surface temperature. When the body's surface temperature is reduced for an extended period of time, it can eventually decrease internal body temperature. What qualifies as "cold" will vary based on the local climate and season. Environmental and physical factors that contribute to cold stress include:
  • Below-average temperatures;
  • Elevated wind speed;
  • Wetness/dampness( even from body sweat);
  • Poor physical conditioning;
  • Lack of adaptation to cold; and
  • Preexisting conditions (e.g., hypertension, hypothyroidism, or diabetes).

Recognizing and Treating the Three Types of Cold Stress

The three main types of cold stress are hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot (immersion). Hypothermia is the reduction of body temperature from its normal 98.6°F to below 95°F. It occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced. While hypothermia is most likely to occur at freezing temperatures, it can also occur above 40°F when cool temperatures are paired with chilling from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Symptoms include extreme shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, and disorientation. In the more advanced stages of hypothermia, the shivering stops, the pupils may dilate, and pulse and breathing rates slow. Loss of consciousness may follow. Without intervention, death is likely.

First aid for hypothermia consists of:
  • Calling 911 (follow operator's instructions);
  • Moving the person to a warm, dry area;
  • Replacing wet clothes with dry ones and covering the body with blankets and a vapor barrier (never cover the face); and
  • Providing warm beverages if the person is alert. Never give fluids to an unconscious person.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying body tissue freeze. It typically affects the extremities and in severe cases can require amputation.

Symptoms include reddened skin with gray/white patches; a physical sensation of numbness, aching, and firmness in the affected body parts; and, in severe cases, blisters.

First-aid options for frostbite are limited. Do not rub the affected area, douse it with water, break blisters, or otherwise attempt to rewarm the area without professional medical instruction. First responders tending to a victim should loosely cover the affected body part and prevent contact with the area. If the person is alert, provide warm beverages.
worker protects self from cold stress, trench foot
Immersion, traditionally called "trench foot," is the result of extended exposure of the feet to cold and wet conditions. Injuries can occur at temperatures as high as 60°F if the foot is constantly wet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels in the feet. This deprives tissues of oxygen and nutrients and causes a buildup of toxins that can cause tissue death. Symptoms include redness, swelling, numbness, and blisters.

Because the injury is largely internal, first aid is limited. First, remove wet shoes, boots, and socks. Next, dry the feet and keep them uncovered and elevated. Seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Preventing Cold Stress

Even though OSHA doesn't have a formal standard to protect workers from cold stress, it is a recognized occupational hazard for workers exposed to cold environments. Under OSHA's General Duty Clause, employers are required to provide employees with work in an employment free of hazards that could cause death or serious harm in the workplace.

To prevent and mitigate the hazards of cold stress, employers should:
  1. Train workers to recognize conditions that can lead to cold stress;
  2. Train workers to identify the symptoms of cold stress; know how to prevent it; and administer first aid to sufferers;
  3. Require the use of proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy situations;
  4. Monitor workers' physical condition for symptoms of cold stress;
  5. Schedule periodic break times in warm areas and provide warm beverages;
  6. Provide engineering controls such as heaters; and
  7. Practice the use of a buddy system and working in pairs when appropriate.
For more information about cold stress and other winter hazards, see OSHA's Winter Weather Index.

OSHA also provides guidance on protecting employees from environmental hazards during summer months. For information on how to identify, prevent, and respond to incidents of heat illness, see the Lion News article Preventing Heat Illness in the Summer.

Expert OSHA Employee Training

To help employers and employees meet OSHA's training and awareness requirements, Lion Technology offers convenient 24/7 online training. A full list of online courses is available now at For more information on how OSHA regulates specific workplace hazards, see the complete OSHA Training FAQ at

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