Home > Blog > Cold Conditions and Worker Injuries

Cold Conditions and Worker Injuries

Posted by:

Workers exposed to cold outdoors (Construction, Public Utilities, etc) or indoors (Cold Storage/Warehouse workers, etc.) are at risk for cold stress, a drop in the body’s internal temperature that can cause serious damage if not remedied immediately.

All workers exposed to cold temps should have the right gear to limit their cold exposure.  In addition, a warm, dry area for taking breaks is important too.

Cold stress begins when the body’s skin temperature drops and can progress quickly to affect the body’s core temperature. Extreme cold and wind chill can have this effect, and if workers have damp clothing from snow, rain, or even their own sweat, it compounds this risk. If the body cannot warm itself and its temperature stays too low, tissue and organs may be damaged as a result. Common injuries that occur as a result of cold stress include:

Chilblains: This causes inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin. Repeated exposure to low but non-freezing temperatures can cause damage to the skin and tissue underneath. Symptoms include redness, itching, pain, inflammation, blisters, and ulcers.

Trench foot: This is a non-freezing injury that occurs when feet are cold or damp for long periods of time. Prolonged dampness can cause trench foot even when temperatures are not as low, as wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet. Symptoms include pain, redness, tingling or numbness, swelling, muscle cramps, blisters, and gangrene, when the foot appears dark purple, blue, or gray.

Frostbite: This is freezing of skin and tissues, commonly seen on extremities, such as fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, chin, or earlobes. If not treated immediately, frostbite can cause tissue to die due to decreased circulation, which may result in amputation. Symptoms can include gray and white patches on the skin, blue or waxy skin, tingling and numbness, aching, unusual firmness in affected area, and blisters.

Hypothermia: This occurs when there is a drop in body temperature to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. When a person loses body heat faster than they can regenerate it, they use up their stored energy and their internal functions may start to shut down. Symptoms can begin with uncontrollable shivering and fatigue as the body tries to warm itself; as it progresses, hypothermia can impact brain function and cause confusion, slurred speech, loss of coordination, dilated pupils, slow heart rate or breathing, unconsciousness, or even death.

If workers suspect they are suffering from any of these conditions, they should be moved to a warm, dry place and replace any wet clothing with dry clothing immediately. Emergency medical care may be needed in some cases, especially for hypothermia, which can have lasting effects if not treated immediately.

Some workers may have a higher risk for cold stress than others due to their medical history. Workers with chronic conditions, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, or are taking certain medications that may affect circulation, are more likely to develop cold stress than others. Cold weather can also worsen musculoskeletal injuries or vascular conditions. Employers should be aware of which employees have these conditions and take steps to limit their exposure. Workers who smoke are also at an increased risk for cold weather injuries.

OSHA does not have specific regulations for working in cold conditions, but it does require employers to create a safe working environment for their employees, even in winter weather conditions. While they cannot control the weather, employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent cold weather injuries, such as:

  • Properly training employees
  • Providing protective gear that is appropriate for the weather and fits well
  • Scheduling work for the warmest part of the day when possible
  • Allowing employees to take breaks in a warm area
  • Keeping exposure to cold weather limited whenever possible
  • Monitoring workers’ conditions and training supervisors to recognize symptoms of cold stress
  • Providing enough staff to get the job done without endangering workers
  • Instructing employees to work in pairs so that they can watch for cold stress symptoms
  • Having emergency supplies on hand, such as hand warmers, thermometers, and first aid supplies
  • Getting prompt medical attention for workers who may be suffering from a cold weather injury or illness

It is important to note that OSHA does not require employers to provide clothing for their employees. Workers in cold conditions should dress in layers so they can adjust if they begin to overheat or the temperature changes; the layer closest to the skin should be wool, silk, or synthetic fabric to help wick away moisture. Loose clothing is better than fitted clothing, as anything too tight can decrease circulation and make workers more susceptible to injury. Many employers provide winter gear, such as heavy coats, hats, or gloves, although they are not required to do so. If they do not, employees should have their own on hand and make sure their head and neck are always covered.

Workers who suffer from a cold-related injury in the course of performing their job duties are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Cold stress and other winter injuries can require costly medical treatment, and severe injuries may leave employees with lasting consequences, such as amputation or loss of function. Depending on the nature of their injury, injured workers may recover compensation for:

  • Medical expenses: Employers are required to cover treatment related to the employee’s work injury
  • Lost wages: Employees receive a percentage of their income if they are unable to work while they recover
  • Permanent disability: If the employee is left with permanent loss of function and either cannot work or must work in a limited capacity, they will be entitled to long-term benefits

If you or loved one have suffered cold related injuries, contact LDM Law for a complimentary review of your matter.   Insurance companies will often try to deny paying out benefits, either by denying that the injury was work related or trying to downplay its severity. For over 40 years, LDM has been protecting our client’s interests to ensure they receive all the benefits to which they are entitled.