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February 07, 2005
Watch Out for Winter's Chill

Cold weather dangers are nothing to sneeze at. Employees need to know that working outside in cold conditions can have serious hazards—principally hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia in particular is a significant health issue, for three reasons:

  • It's sneaky—it can be difficult to recognize until a case becomes moderate to severe.
  • It's deceptive—it can happen even if temperatures are above freezing.
  • It can be deadly—unrecognized and untreated, hypothermia can actually kill.

Often the real culprit in cases of hypothermia is not cold by itself—it's moisture (that's why it's possible to get hypothermia in relatively mild conditions). So make sure your employees know that it can be far worse to be cold and wet than just to be cold.

What is hypothermia, exactly? The human body has its own "thermostat" to regulate its normal temperature of 98.6 degrees F, and it generates heat in response to cold temperatures in order to maintain this level through such mechanisms as perspiring and shivering. Hypothermia means that the body's normal temperature has dropped sufficiently to impair physical and mental functions. And it doesn't take much—body temperature that is only slightly below 98.6 degrees can produce mild hypothermia. Signs of advancing hypothermia include:

  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Dazed consciousness or irrational behavior

Take steps to prevent hypothermia. Employees who work in cold conditions should understand, first, that

Why It Matters...
  • While there are no specific rules for cold weather work, OSHA does take it seriously and publishes helpful guidelines.
  • According to OSHA, more than 700 hypothermia deaths occur each year in the United States.
  • In addition to hypothermia, frostbite is also a serious hazard of cold that can cause permanent damage to body tissue.

hypothermia is a real hazard, and second, that there are several common sense things they can do to protect themselves, including:

  • Stay dry—if they get wet, come in and change clothes or dry out.
  • Dress in layers—these provide insulation, and outer layers can be removed if the weather gets warmer.
  • Wear clothing that resists moisture or "wicks" it away quickly. Synthetic fabrics are best; cotton is not recommended because it retains moisture.
  • Work in pairs—if one shows signs of hypothermia, the other can provide assistance.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol—these actually hurt, rather than help, in resisting the cold.
  • If they're uncomfortably cold, come inside and warm up!
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