Protecting Workers from Cold Stress

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Who is affected by environmental cold?

Environmental cold can affect any worker exposed to cold air temperatures and puts workers at risk of cold stress. As wind speed increases, it causes the cold air temperature to feel even colder, increasing the risk of cold stress to exposed workers, especially those working outdoors, such as recreational workers, snow cleanup crews, construction workers, police officers and firefighters. Other workers who may be affected by exposure to environmental cold conditions include those in transit, baggage handlers, water transportation, landscaping services, and support activities for oil and gas operations.

Risk factors for cold stress include:

  • Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion
  • Predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes
  • Poor physical conditioning

What is cold stress?

What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for “cold stress.” Increased wind speed also causes heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness, even from body sweat, also facilitates heat loss from the body. Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Types of cold stress include: trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.

For more information, see OSHA’s Cold Stress Safety and Health Guide.

How can cold stress be prevented?

Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.

  • Employers should train workers. Training should include:
    • How to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress.
    • The symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do to help those who are affected.
    • How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
  • Employers should:
    • Monitor workers physical condition.
    • Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas, to allow the body to warm up.
    • Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
    • Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
    • Provide warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with alcohol.
    • Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters.
The above is an excerpt from the article, “Working in the Cold: How Cab Cold Stress Be Prevented?” For more information, please visit www.osha.gov.

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