More on Cold Weather Risks for Workers and How to Prevent or Treat Them

Posted on Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 at 11:33 am    

Another danger for workers who work outside is trench foot. Trench foot is also known as immersion. Trench foot is due to lengthy exposure to cold temperatures and wet elements. Workers can develop trench foot even if temperatures are as much as 60 degrees F. The injury happens “because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet.” According to OSHA’s stress guide, the danger is that the body, to prevent heat loss, will “constrict the blood vessels to shut down the circulation in the feet.” When the circulation is cut, skin tissue can die because the tissue doesn’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs. There can also be a buildup of toxins.

Trench foot symptoms include swelling, numbness, blisters, and redness of the skin. If a worker develops trench foot, contact 911 immediately or get medical help immediately. The wet footwear and socks should be removed, and the feet should be dried.

OSHA recommendations for preventing cold stress

While OSHA does not have specific standards for how employers should handle cold weather, it does have recommendations. These recommendations include training workers on how to prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses. This includes what protective clothing and equipment should be worn outdoors. It includes creating policies for reducing risk such as monitoring temperatures and wet conditions and understanding when workers should come in from the cold. Proper “engineering controls” should be considered. This can include radiant heaters, and temporary facilities where workers can warm up. Equipment and devices can be purchased or crafted to reduce exposure to winds and drafts.

Some safe work practice policies that employers should consider when the weather gets cold include:

  • Preventing workers from becoming dehydrated. Fluids should be readily available. Workers should be encouraged to drink them. Warm sweet liquids generally help workers drink more liquids. Alcoholic beverages, however, should be avoided.
  • Heavy work should be scheduled for the sunnier warmer parts of the day.
  • Employees should use a buddy system (where employees work in pairs) so that each employee can monitor and help the other work.
  • If workers aren’t feeling well, they should be allowed to stop working and get hydrated or rest.
  • Employees should be allowed to take rest breaks, even when feeling well, on a more regular basis than in other weather conditions.
  • Workers who have been out of work due to a workplace injury or illness should be given plenty of time to acclimate themselves to work, in general, so they can build up their tolerance – before being given outdoor assignments.

Many factors contribute to workers feeling as warm as they need to be in cold weather. Proper dress for work factors include:

  • The fabric in the clothing. Cotton doesn’t have much insulation value if it becomes wet. Silk, wool, and many synthetics are better fabrics for protecting cold weather workers.
    • Workers should have at least three layers of clothing. The layers should be loose fitting. This combination helps to better insulate the worker. Tight fighting clothing is actually not as effective as many workers would think it should be. The three layers should consist of the following:
    • “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.”
  • Workers should wear a hat or wear a coat with a hood. Head coverings are essential to reducing the amount of body heat that can escape.
  • Knit masks can protect the face. Some knit masks can even protect the mouth and lips.
  • Gloves should be insulated. Better gloves are also resistant to water.
  • Workers should wear boots that are insulated and waterproof boots. An extra pair of socks may help.

Additional safety tips for employees

Other steps that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends employers take include:

  • Constant monitoring of workers’ physical conditions in outdoor weather
  • Staying as dry as possible. It’s the combination of cold and wetness that can often be the most harmful – causing hypothermia, frostbite, and trench mouth. Wetness doesn’t just include external liquids. Excess sweating can be dangerous too. The sweat quickly turns cold in bad weather.
  • Workers should have extra clothing such as sweaters and warm underwear ready.

Other cold weather problems besides the cold and wet

Icy and Snowy Walkways and Parking Lots. Ice is an especially dangerous concern in several respects. Icy surfaces can make it much more likely that workers will slip and fall. We unfortunately have represented many injured workers in all kinds of occupations who are injured—typically when exiting or entering their place of employment.  Even a telecommuter may be entitled to make a claim if he or she slipped on snow or ice at home—provided he or she has begun engaging in employment-related activities for the day and was so engaged at the time of the fall.

Snow and ice make it easy for people to lose their footing. Workers who slip and fall can suffer broken bones, muscle and ligament damage, and other types of injuries that can prevent them from working for a long time, or in some cases, unable to return to work at all. We have seen numerous surgeries made necessary due to a slip and fall on ice.

A typical office environment—where ladies wear high heels and men wear dress shoes—combined with ice, is an absolute prescription for disaster. These types of footwear provide no traction whatsoever on icy surfaces and are likely to slide out and cause serious injury. If possible, particularly if there is a long trek from the parking lot to the entry of your place of employment—alternate, weather appropriate footwear should be worn, such as warm boots, like the Sorel brand, and you should carry your office shoes with you in a backpack or by other means. This will also prevent the shoes from being ruined by the harsh salt and other chemicals which are often used in an attempt to melt icy walkways.

Steps should be taken by the employer/landlord to remove ice and clean up snow and ice on company sidewalks and parking lots – as soon as possible after the weather has ceased precipitation.  

Icy Road Conditions. Many North Carolina and Virginia drivers have difficulty driving in the snow. It is not something we are used to. Icy road conditions make driving especially dangerous. Icy conditions can also make it hard for drivers to see. Windshield wipers may stop working completely if the ice builds up too much.

Employers should prepare for bad weather and should educate their workers and have a plan in place about what to do in the event the roads are deemed hazardous. Follow your local news and school and employer closings. If most of the larger employers are opting out of requiring their employees to come to work, that might be a good indication that the employer should advise your employees not to come in as well.

Workers who are injured while driving on the job can suffer a broad range of serious injuries or may even be killed. Moreover, workers should be aware of the “going and coming rule”. That is, you typically cannot claim any injury that you suffered while on the way to or from work as a workers comp injury.  

North Carolina and Virginia worker’s compensation lawyer Joe Miller Esq. has been helping injured workers get justice for more than 30 years.  He’s helped thousands of injured employees get compensation for their medical bills and lost wages. He helps all types of workers from construction and heavy industry workers to healthcare workers and officer workers. For help now, please phone me at 1-(888) 667-8295 or fill out my contact form.