Sometimes it seems as if winter will last forever. Most of us don’t get to stay home when the weather is bad – and some workers have to work out in that bad weather. When the temperature falls below freezing (or lower), outdoor workers risk cold stress.
According to OSHA, cold stress comes in three main varieties: frostbite, trench foot (“immersion”) and hypothermia.
- Frostbite occurs when skin or other bodily tissues freeze. It can cause permanent damage, including amputation.
- Trench foot is caused by prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions. It can happen in warmer temperatures, too, because wet feet are known to lose heat 25 times faster than dry ones.
- Hypothermia is when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees F. It can result in unclear thinking and trouble moving well. Unfortunately, this sometimes means the person does not know what is happening or cannot do anything about it.
Workers can help prevent cold stress by dressing properly and notifying their employer if they have a medical condition that predisposes them to cold stress, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or hypothyroidism.
You can also help by reaching out to your supervisor when you begin to feel symptoms of cold stress.
Employers must take reasonable steps to prevent cold stress
According to OSHA, employers have a legal duty to protect their workers from known hazards, including cold stress, that can cause serious physical harm or death. They are legally required to take reasonable steps to protect you.
For example, they should train you on how to recognize conditions that lead to cold stress, along with its symptoms, prevention and treatment. They should also give you instructions on how to dress for cold, wet and windy conditions.
Additionally, employers should:
- Monitor your condition
- Schedule frequent breaks in a warm and dry area to allow your body to warm up
- Schedule work during the warmest part of the day, if possible
- Assign people to work in pairs
- Provide plenty of warm, sweet, non-alcoholic beverages
- Provide radiant heaters or other engineering controls to reduce exposure to the cold
Sometimes, people will still get cold stress
It may be that your boss doesn’t take cold stress seriously and didn’t follow OSHA’s recommendations. Or, it could be that despite everyone’s best efforts, you got a cold stress injury anyway.
It doesn’t matter which one. If you work for an employer who is required to provide workers’ compensation insurance – and almost everyone does – you’re covered.
Workers’ comp covers your medical bills related to the injury and pays 2/3 of your wages for any days you couldn’t work.
It’s not automatic, though. You have to report your injury to your boss and make a claim.