How to Prevent Cold Stress in the Workplace

  • Workplace Health & Safety
workers working in cold weather
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

In Canada, severe winter conditions can bring about many challenges for those working outdoors. In industries such as construction, agriculture, transportation, oil and gas operations, and landscaping, workers are frequently exposed to the elements and inclement weather. Under those working conditions, workers can potentially develop cold stress, which happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, leading to various health issues. 

By understanding the signs of cold stress and how to prevent it, employers can create a safer working environment during winter months, ensure the well-being of their employees, and foster a healthier, more productive workplace.

What is Cold Stress?

Cold stress occurs when the body is no longer able to maintain its internal core temperature (37°C). The body then begins to redirect blood flow from the skin and extremities (arms, legs, hands, feet) to the chest and abdomen. This causes the skin and extremities to cool quickly and increases the risk of injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia.

Early warning signs of cold stress

Here are some early onset symptoms of cold stress:

  • Feeling cold.
  • Shivering.
  • Grogginess.
  • Loss of feeling or tingling in the extremities, i.e. fingers and toes.
  • Trouble moving fingers, hands, and toes.
  • Frostnip (skin surface turning white).
  • Poor judgment or confused thinking.

Worsening symptoms:

  • Violent, extreme shivering.
  • Confusion, inability to think or concentrate.
  • Slow, shallow breathing.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Impaired body coordination.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Common severe cold stress symptoms

Here are some common signs that an employee is severely affected by cold stress:  

  • Frostbite: The skin becomes blistered, grey, and pale, especially on the fingers, toes, nose, or ears. Employees may also experience numbness or tingling sensations in those areas.
  • Hypothermia: Watch for shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Hypothermia can be life-threatening, and employers must take immediate action to address the issue.
  • Trench foot: Identify red, swollen feet with numbness and a tingling or burning sensation. Trench foot is often a result of prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions.
  • Chilblains: Chilblains appear as red, swollen, and itchy skin, usually on the hands and feet. They can be painful and may lead to infection.

How to prevent cold stress and protect your staff

Cold stress can pose significant risks to employees who work in cold temperatures, wind, and wet conditions. Here are some of the steps and measures employers can take to prevent workers from developing cold stress:  

Step I: Prevent or eliminate the risk

Adjust work location or environment

Consider whether the work can be performed in a different environment, such as moving it indoors or postponing it to warmer months or seasons.

Change work schedules or practices 

Modify work schedules to reduce prolonged exposure to cold. Rotate tasks or duties between employees to limit the time spent in cold environments. Also, schedule work tasks to include breaks in warm areas to allow employees to warm up.

Education and training

Educate employees about the signs of cold stress, such as shivering, confusion, numbness, frostbites or frostnips, so they can recognize symptoms in themselves and their colleagues. Provide training on the importance of proper clothing and regular breaks.

Monitor weather conditions

Stay informed about weather forecasts, wind chill, and temperature to anticipate potential incoming risks. Plan your employees’ work and schedules around severe weather events and develop an inclement weather policy to address business closure. 

Step II: Implement worksite measures

Modify work procedures and conditions

This method involves modifying your equipment, worksite and work process to minimize hazards. For example, you can make changes to how employees operate machines or tools in a way that they don’t have to remove their mittens, gloves, or outerwear.

Heated work areas

If the work is conducted outdoors and in below freezing temperatures, you could set up heated shelters or zones where employees can warm up. Access to warming shelters is vital for preventing prolonged exposure to cold conditions. 

Scheduled warm-up breaks

Schedule regular warm-up breaks to allow employees to recover from the cold. Encourage them to take breaks before they feel too cold, preventing the onset of cold stress.

Step III: Make changes to work policies

First aid and safety training

Provide comprehensive training on recognizing and preventing cold stress. Ensure employees understand the risks, symptoms, appropriate preventive measures, and basic first aid skills. You should have at least one employee trained in dealing with cold-related emergencies per shift, so your team can respond quickly when there is an incident.

Health monitoring

Monitor employees' health regularly, especially during extreme cold weather. Encourage them to report any signs of cold stress immediately. You can use a buddy system where workers are assigned tasks in pairs, so they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress. Also, ensure you’re familiar with the regulations in your province and are working within the safe temperature guidelines.

Hydration and nutrition

Hydration is essential even in cold conditions. Encourage employees to stay well-hydrated by providing access to warm beverages or soup. Additionally, promote a balanced diet to support energy levels. Avoid alcoholic drinks, coffee, or consuming food that can cause dehydration.

Warm-up exercises

Introduce or recommend warm-up exercises that employees can perform before starting work in the cold. These exercises can help increase blood flow and circulation to warm the body, reducing the likelihood of getting cold stress.

Step IV: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Issuing and providing PPE

Supply employees with high-quality, insulated, and waterproof clothing. This may include jackets, pants, boots, and other equipment necessary for working in cold conditions. Any PPE you provide must be suitable for the specific conditions employees will face, which could include factors like wind, humidity, and temperature.

Teach layering techniques

Instruct employees on the importance of layering clothing for insulation. Multiple layers trap warmth better than a single thick layer. Here are a few layering techniques for keeping warm:

  • Use moisture-wicking base layers to keep the skin dry. 
  • The outer layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant if the environment is cold, wet or windy. 
  • Avoid having cotton clothing close to the skin as it gets damp or wet quickly and takes longer to dry. 
  • If workers feel hot while working, they can open their jackets but should keep hats and gloves on. 
  • Wear hats or hoods to protect the ears and prevent the loss of heat from the head. 
  • Wear face coverings or knit masks if needed.
  • Workers should carry a change of clothes in case the clothes they’re wearing get wet.

How to prepare new employees for working in cold environments

Your new workers need time to become fully acclimatized to working in cold environments. To help them ease into their work situations faster, you can provide onboarding and orientation programs to include components that address working in the cold and preventing cold stress. 

Here are some key elements you can include:

Cold stress awareness training

Include a dedicated section in your onboarding program that educates employees on what cold stress is, its symptoms, and the importance of prevention.

Identify cold stress factors

Provide information about factors that contribute to cold stress, such as wind chill, humidity, and temperature, and explain how these elements impact the body. You should gradually increase the workload of new workers or those returning to work in cold environments so they have time to develop a cold tolerance. 

Proper PPE and dress code guidance

Clearly communicate the dress code for working in cold environments. Detail the importance of layering, wearing insulated clothing, and using appropriate accessories like hats and gloves. Provide new employees with the necessary and appropriate PPEs for their tasks and working conditions.

Cold-related emergency protocols

Educate new employees about emergency procedures related to cold stress, including how to recognize signs of hypothermia or frostbite and the steps to take in case of an emergency.

Continuous training and education

Keep employees informed about changes to training or work policies related to cold stress prevention. Employers should update their training programs regularly to reinforce cold stress awareness and best practices. The programs must align with the most current provincial OHS legislation and labour laws

Do you need help creating a cold stress exposure control plan for your workplace?

Our award-winning team can help you develop health and safety policies for dealing with cold stress and emergencies. We can assess your workplace for risks, take care of all your essential H&S documentation, and create contracts, employee handbooks, and more. Call 1(833) 247-3652 today to find out more.

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