Cold Stress At Work: How to Train Employees for Safety

workers exposed to extreme cold

When working in a cold environment or during the cold season, understanding and mitigating the risk of cold stress becomes crucial for maintaining a safe and productive workplace. This article expands on practical steps and comprehensive strategies to prepare and train employees for the challenges posed by cold or winter weather, emphasizing the importance of understanding the risk of cold stress, recognizing the signs of cold-related illnesses, and implementing robust safety measures.

Understanding Cold Stress

Cold stress at work refers to the physical stress that occurs when an employee is exposed to extremely cold temperatures and the body is unable to warm itself. This condition can lead to serious health problems, including hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains, which not only affect the health and safety of employees but also impact their productivity and the overall operational efficiency of the business. Cold exposure is a significant concern in industries where employees are required to work in outdoor conditions or unheated indoor environments, such as construction, agriculture, transportation, and warehousing.

Employers have a responsibility to assess the risk of extreme cold in their operations and implement measures to minimize these risks. This includes modifying work schedules, providing proper protective clothing, ensuring that warm break areas are available, and developing emergency response plans for cold-related incidents. By understanding the specific challenges presented by very cold temperatures and adopting comprehensive safety measures, employers can safeguard their employees' health and well-being during the colder months.


How Cold is Too Cold?

Determining 'how cold is too cold' for safe work conditions is essential for preventing serious cold related illnesses and ensuring the health and safety of employees. This determination involves considering several factors, including temperature thresholds, wind chill factors, and the science of body heat loss. Understanding these elements allows employers to set appropriate safety measures and guidelines for working in cold environments.

  1. Temperature Thresholds: There is no universal temperature that marks when it becomes too cold to work safely, as sensitivity to cold varies by individual. However, monitoring the National Weather Service's wind chill chart is critical, which can help employers make informed decisions about potential cold exposure risks.
  2. Wind Chill: The wind chill factor describes the combined effect of wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin. It's more accurate than air temperature alone in evaluating the potential for cold stress. Wind chill can significantly increase the rate of heat loss from the body, leading to a higher risk of cold-related illnesses.
  3. The Science of Body Heat Loss: Body heat is lost faster in a cold environment, especially with wind chill, leading to cold stress. Training on how to minimize heat loss through proper clothing and work practices is vital.


The 4 Risks of Extreme Cold

The risks of extremely cold in the workplace encompass various cold stress conditions, including hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains. Understanding these conditions, recognizing their symptoms, and knowing the appropriate emergency response and prevention strategies are crucial for maintaining a safe work environment.

1. Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing the body temperature to fall below 95°F (35°C). It often happens in cold environments, especially when an individual is not adequately dressed for the weather conditions or stays in the cold for too long.

Symptoms: Early signs include shivering, fatigue, confusion, and loss of coordination. As hypothermia progresses, shivering may stop, and the individual can show signs of drowsiness, shallow breathing, and a weak pulse.
Emergency Response: Move the person to a warm room or shelter. Remove any wet clothing and warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket if available, or body heat. Provide warm beverages if the victim is conscious. Seek medical attention immediately.
Prevention: Dressing in layers, taking frequent breaks in warm areas, and staying dry are key strategies for preventing hypothermia.

2.Trench Foot

Trench foot, or immersion foot, results from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions without freezing. It can happen at temperatures up to 60°F (16°C) if the feet are constantly wet.

Symptoms: Swelling, numbness, and a heavy feeling in the feet. The skin may turn red or blue.
Emergency Response: Dry and gradually warm the feet. Avoid walking, as it can cause more damage. Seek medical care.
Prevention: Keeping feet dry, changing wet socks regularly, and using waterproof footwear.

3. Chilblains

Chilblains occur after repeated exposure to cold but not freezing air. The condition causes inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin.

Symptoms: Redness, itching, possible blistering, and inflammation on hands and feet.
Emergency Response: Avoid scratching. Slowly warm the skin. Apply corticosteroid creams to reduce itching and swelling. Keep the affected areas dry and warm.
Prevention: Dressing in layers, using gloves and warm footwear, and avoiding rapid temperature changes can help prevent chilblains.

4. Long-term Exposure Risks

Chronic exposure to extreme cold can lead to long-term health effects, including permanent nerve damage, muscle and joint pain, and increased susceptibility to cold-induced conditions.

Prevention: Implementing comprehensive cold exposure safety programs, including proper clothing, training on extreme cold risks, and ensuring that work practices minimize exposure to cold, wet, and windy conditions.


Practical Cold Stress Safety Training Tips in the Workplace

workers wearing safety PPE for cold environment

This section outlines practical training tips and strategies for workplace safety, focusing on dressing for the cold, work schedule, nutrition and hydration, and the use of tools and equipment.

Dressing for the Cold

Train employees on the importance of wearing multiple layers of clothing. The base layer should wick moisture away from the body, the middle layer should provide insulation, and the outer layer should be windproof and waterproof. Emphasize the selection of materials that retain heat even when wet, such as wool or synthetic fibers. Avoid cotton, as it loses its insulating properties when wet. Highlight the need for specialized cold-weather gear PPE, including insulated gloves, waterproof boots, thermal hats, and face protection. The use of proper eyewear to protect against wind and glare is also important.

Work Scheduling and Breaks

Where possible, adjust work schedules to minimize exposure to the coldest parts of the day. Consider implementing shorter shifts or rotating employees through tasks that allow for periods of warming up. Ensure that employees take regular breaks in warm areas, especially during extended periods of cold exposure. Break areas should be shielded from the cold and wind, and equipped with means to warm up, such as heaters or warm beverages.

Nutrition and Hydration

Educate employees on the importance of consuming warm, high-calorie foods that can help maintain normal body temperature and energy levels. Foods high in carbohydrates and fats can provide quick and sustained energy. Cold weather can impair the body's thirst response, leading to decreased fluid intake and increased risk of dehydration. Encourage regular consumption of warm, sweet beverages to maintain hydration and warmth.


How to Develop a Comprehensive Cold Weather Policy

Creating a comprehensive cold weather policy is essential for ensuring the safety and well-being of employees working in cold environments. This guide provides a step-by-step approach to developing a policy that addresses the risks associated with cold weather work and outlines preventive measures and procedures.

Step 1: Assess Workplace Cold Stress Risks

Evaluate the workplace for extreme cold hazards, considering factors like temperature, wind chill, moisture, and employee exposure times. Identify specific tasks or roles that involve higher exposure to cold conditions. Engage with employees for their insights on cold weather challenges and potential safety improvements.

Step 2: Drafting the Policy

Begin with a clear statement of the policy’s purpose, emphasizing the commitment to employee and workplace safety. Include definitions of cold stress and related conditions (e.g., hypothermia, frostbite) to educate employees. Establish specific conditions under which the policy’s provisions become applicable, based on local climate data and occupational health guidelines.

Step 3: Key Components and Considerations

Specify required or recommended clothing and PPE for different temperature ranges and conditions. Outline adjustments to work schedules, break frequencies, and durations to minimize cold exposure. Detail steps for recognizing and responding to cold stress symptoms and conditions, including first aid measures and when to seek medical attention. Define the training and education employees must receive on cold stress recognition, prevention, and response.

Step 4: Implementation Strategies

Use multiple channels to communicate the policy to all employees, ensuring they understand their roles and responsibilities. Provide comprehensive training on the policy’s contents, including practical exercises on wearing PPE and responding to extreme cold emergencies. Ensure that necessary resources, such as appropriate clothing, warm break areas, and first aid supplies, are readily available.

Step 5: Monitoring and Enforcement

Regularly check that the policy is being followed and that personal protective equipment and other resources are being used correctly. Solicit feedback from employees and use it to review and adjust the policy as needed, particularly after incidents or near-misses.

Step 6: Review and Policy Updates

Set regular intervals (e.g., annually) to review the policy, taking into account new research, technology, and feedback from employees. Make updates to the policy to reflect changes in work practices, climate conditions, or legal requirements.

Step 7: Documentation and Record Keeping

Keep detailed records of risk assessments, training sessions, incidents of cold stress, and feedback from employees, as these documents can inform future policy updates and prove compliance with safety regulations.


Frequently Asked Questions on Cold Stress

What are the signs of cold stress?

Signs of cold stress include uncontrollable shivering, numbness, paleness, confusion, fatigue, slurred speech, and drowsiness. In severe cases, shivering may stop, indicating that the body is running out of energy to keep warm, which is a sign of hypothermia.

At what temperature is it too cold to work outside?

There's no specific temperature considered universally too cold to work outside, as it depends on wind chill, humidity, and personal tolerance. However, OSHA recommends extra precautions when the wind chill temperature falls below 20°F (-6.7°C), as the risk of cold related illnesses increases significantly.

What is the first aid for cold stress?

First aid for extreme cold involves moving the person to a warm place, removing wet clothing, and warming the core body first (chest, neck, head, groin) using blankets or body heat. For mild cases, provide warm (not hot) beverages if the person is conscious and alert. Always seek medical attention for signs of hypothermia or frostbite.

Can too much cold cause a stroke?

Exposure to extreme cold can increase the risk of a stroke in susceptible individuals. Cold temperatures can constrict blood vessels, increasing blood pressure and the risk of blood clots. People with cardiovascular disease are particularly at risk.

What is a dangerously low body temperature?

A dangerously low body temperature, or hypothermia, occurs when the body temperature falls below 95°F (35°C). This condition requires immediate medical attention as it can lead to cardiac arrest, unconsciousness, and even death if not promptly treated.


TRADESAFE is a premier company providing industrial safety solutions, including Lockout Tagout (LOTO) devices, workplace signs and more. We take pride in our top-of-the-line products engineered to meet rigorous industrial safety standards.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.