10 Hidden Dangers of Cold Stress

lineman in winter

It’s no secret that working outdoors in winter’s harsh weather can be dangerous. The risk of slips and falls can increase as the weather deteriorates. But there’s also the issue of cold stress, and that can be just as dangerous.

Cold stress can cause illnesses and injuries like hypothermia and frostbite. Repeated exposure to the cold has even been linked to musculoskeletal injuries and other disorders. For such a common threat among utility workers, the dangers of cold stress are surprisingly overlooked.

Take a look at these 10 hidden dangers of cold stress, as described by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).1

  1. It doesn’t take much for hypothermia to set in. It happens when the body temperature drops below 95°F.
  2. Above freezing temperatures can be dangerous if an individual becomes chilled from wind, rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.
  3. Those with heath conditions including hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes can be more susceptible than their healthier counterparts.
  4. Exhaustion can actually increase risk of cold stress because it prohibits a person’s body from adequately staying warm.
  5. A lack of shivering can indicate a serious problem, especially if the person had been shivering previously. This may indicate that the hypothermia has set in.
  6. Even minor loss of coordination or fumbling with tools and equipment may be another serious indication that hypothermia is taking hold.   
  7. Rubbing, running under warm water or other attempts to rewarm an area that appears frostbitten may actually damage the area more. If frostbite is suspected, leave it to a medical professional to rewarm the area.
  8. Trench foot (also known as cold water immersion) is another possible cold stress injury that can occur when skin is exposed for long periods of time to cold water. Wet skin loses heat 25-times faster than dry skin, which means cold water immersion can occur in relatively mild temperatures of 60°F.
  9. It’s surprisingly easy to become dehydrated in cold weather. Plenty of warm, sweetened liquids should be on hand at all times.
  10. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet while most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation. So what’s good for arc flash protection is also good for cold weather protection.

What to wear:

What utility workers wear, in fact, can be one of the biggest determining factors when it comes to cold stress, according to Mark Laubach, senior environment, health and safety manager for Anixter. “Wearing the right clothes and knowing how to layer those clothes can make all the difference,” he explains. OSHA states that wearing at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing is the best way to dress for cold weather.

 This includes:

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

Laubach add that workers in the coldest environments aren’t necessarily the most at risk. Sometimes it’s those in traditionally warmer climates who find themselves underdressed, unprepared and dangerously non-acclimated to the cold when it strikes.