With extreme winter cold coming to Pennsylvania, it’s important for workers and employers alike to be prepared for low temperatures and wind chills. People who work outside can be at risk for cold stress, especially during especially cold temperatures, wind chill advisories and wind chill warnings. Typical categories of workers who may be exposed to environmental cold include:
- Construction workers
- Snow cleanup crews and landscaping workers
- Recreational workers
- Police officers, firefighters and EMTs
- Transit workers
- Airport baggage handlers
- Oil & gas support workers
Cold stress lowers skin and body temperature, eventually causing illness and injury
The degree to which a worker is vulnerable to cold stress depends in part on the conditions and in part on the worker’s conditioning. People in areas where cold is less common can succumb to cold stress at higher temperatures (around freezing) than people who are used to greater cold. People in poor physical condition or who have certain health conditions are at greater risk. Inappropriate dress, wetness/dampness and exhaustion also play roles in cold stress.
Cold stress, which can include exposure to extreme cold or wind chill, occurs when cold, wind and/or dampness, including dampness from body sweat, cause a sharp reduction in skin temperature and eventually body temperature. When the body becomes unable to warm itself, the worker may develop injuries or illnesses such as trench foot, frostbite or hypothermia.
Employers have a duty to protect workers from cold stress hazards
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have a specific standard for work performed in cold environments, the law does require employers to protect workers from risks and hazards that are likely to cause serious physical harm or injury.
Protecting workers from cold stress and subsequent injury or illness requires both training and monitoring. Workers should be trained on:
- How to recognize environmental and workplace conditions that could lead to cold stress
- How to dress in cold, wet and windy conditions
- The symptoms of cold stress and first aid for those affected
Employers should carefully monitor all workers’ physical conditions during cold weather, even if they claim to be all right. Work should be scheduled for the warmest part of the day possible. There should be frequent breaks to warm up, ideally with warm, sweet beverages. Workers should be directed to work in pairs. Available engineering controls such as radiant heaters should be provided.
Wind chill should never be ignored. The wind chill temperature reported by meteorologists represents the actual effect of cold and wind on exposed skin. It is a single number taking into account both air temperature and wind speed and is used to describe the projected rate of heat loss from the human body.