Warm thoughts

Yes it's c-c-c-old, so make sure you know the signs to work safely when the thermometer drops

Now that winter is here, many of us complain about the weather even though our total amount of time spent outside braving the blowing wind and aching cold is equal to the time it takes to walk from our cars to our buildings. Our colleagues in the field - those that have to spend the day outside risking hypothermia, frostbite and other cold stress - don't have it as good. So what should we know about working when it's cold?

Preventing cold stress before it can happen can save a lot of time and limbs. Wearing the proper clothing is one defense. Workers should be wearing at least three layers - cotton next to the skin, down or wool next, then a layer of nylon to break the wind. Wearing a hat and insulated work boots is also important. And staying hydrated and being aware of substances that will affect a person's tolerance to cold (like alcohol, cannabis and antidepressants) can also prevent cold stress.

For over half of the year, Alberta suffers with cold weather. It's important to know the signs of cold stress and what to do when symptoms appear:

Frostbite is caused when body parts are exposed to extreme cold or by contact with extremely cold objects (yet another reason not to lick a metal pole in the dead of winter). A cold, tingly, stinging or aching feeling will turn into numbness and skin will turn from red to purple to white. Alberta Occupational Health and Safety suggests the frostbitten worker move into a warm area, loosen or remove constricting clothing, loosely cover the affected area with sterile dressing and seek medical help. Possibly more important is what you should not do: do not rub the area or apply dry heat, drink alcohol or smoke, rub the area with snow or ice or attempt to rewarm the area on site (if there's a chance that the affected area will get cold again it could result in severe tissue damage).

We've all heard stories of people being so cold that they feel warm enough to strip naked and senselessly run around in the freezing cold temperatures. Hypothermia affects the brain as well as the body. It occurs when the body loses more heat than it's able to make up for. Mild hypothermia is apparent when a worker is shivering and has numb hands. That can turn into moderate hypothermia - loss of muscle coordination, violent shivering, difficulty speaking and walking and signs of depression. As the core temperature drops further, severe hypothermia can set in. The worker will stop shivering, exposed skin will turn blue or puffy, confusion and irrational behaviour will turn into semiconsciousness and stupor as the body temperature drops. Possible heart fibrillation, unconsciousness and a weak pulse can result in death if hypothermia is not treated.

If hypothermia is suspected, you should seek medical help immediately. Call 911. Moderate and severe hypothermia are medical emergencies. While waiting for professional help, you should remove wet clothing, cover the head, warm the body gradually, drink warm (not hot), sugary drinks and, if necessary, perform CPR until medical aid is available.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety's Best Practice - Working Safely in the Heat and Cold suggests that you also "watch for signs of 'unusual -umbles' in yourself and your coworkers... stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles."

2015 ACM MMM Button

2015 ACM Email Button


Free account to gain access to ACM digital editions.