Working in the Cold: What You Need to Know

Practice these tips to stay safe while working outside in cold weather

(RxWiki News) It's wintertime again — when temperatures take a dive. But don't let your health take a dive, too.

Frigid temperatures can be dangerous without the proper precautions. The colder it gets outside, the more energy your body needs to remain warm. And if your occupation requires you to work outdoors, you may face a greater risk for certain cold-related problems, such as hypothermia (low body temperature) and frostbite (freezing of the skin).

Another cold-weather injury is trench foot. This can happen when your feet are wet and cold for too long. And if you add water to the mix, injury can occur. That's because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Trench foot can actually happen in temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit if your feet are constantly wet.

Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slowed heart rate or breathing and unconsciousness. Symptoms of frostbite include reddened skin and developing gray or white patches in the fingers, toes, nose or ear lobes, as well as blisters, tingling, aching and a loss of feeling. Symptoms of trench foot include blisters, leg cramps, numbness, pain, reddening skin, swelling and tingling.

If you are working in cold weather, the best thing you can do is be prepared. Wear warm clothing and limit your time outdoors.

Wear Warm Clothes

1) Wear several layers of loose clothing; layering provides better insulation. Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing, and avoid cotton. Cotton cannot provide insulation when it becomes wet. Instead, opt for the following:

  • An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to help keep moisture away from the body
  • A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide the insulation your body needs even when wet
  • An outer wind and rain protection layer to allow some ventilation and prevent your body from overheating

2) Wear insulated gloves to protect your hands. You may need some gloves that are water-resistant.

3) Wear a hat and/or hood to protect your head. Make sure it covers your ears.

4) Opt for a knit mask to cover the face and mouth (if needed).

5) Wear insulated and waterproof shoes that have good traction.

Finally, make sure your clothing will not restrict your movement or block your eyesight.

Limit Your Time Outside

It does not have to be extremely cold for you to experience cold-related illnesses or injuries. These kinds of problems can occur when it is as warm as 60° F. With that in mind, try the following tips to keep yourself safe:

1) Take breaks where it is warm and dry, such as inside a vehicle or another sheltered or heated area.

2) If possible, try to schedule heavy outdoor work for the warmest part of the day.

Other Things You Can Do

1) Know the signs and symptoms of cold-related problems like hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.

2) Monitor yourself and coworkers while working outdoors. The buddy system can help you monitor each other for signs and symptoms of cold-related problems.

3) Immediately take action if you start to see signs or symptoms of cold-related problems.

4) Drink warm, sweetened fluids like sports drinks and sugar water. These types of drinks can help prevent dehydration.

5) Avoid alcohol and drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, soda and tea. Caffeine and alcohol can cause your body to lose heat.

6) Keep an extra set of clothing with you, including underclothes, in case you get wet and need to change.

You may face a higher risk of cold-related problems if you take certain medications or have certain conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Discuss your risk with your doctor.

For more information on hypothermia and frostbite, be sure to read "Winter Safety Tips."

Written By Anyssa Garza, PharmD, BCMAS

Last Updated:
March 21, 2019