Now that winter is officially upon us, let’s think about those workers who must brave the cold, wind, snow, and freezing rain as part of their daily work routine. They include postal workers, delivery personnel, construction workers, utility company employees, as well as firefighters, police officers, and sanitation workers. I shiver when the news shows video of firefighters putting out a fire in the frigid temperatures as the wind blows back the water on them that immediately freezes. I cringe during record cold spells when I see police officers out in the elements protecting the public.
These are just a few examples of what many men and women deal with as part of their workday. While most of us living in the northeast have experienced freezing temperatures while commuting or engaging in recreational outdoor activities or doing outdoor chores in our daily lives, it is generally for a finite period of time and while it certainly is uncomfortable, it is not usually life threatening.
Working in the cold can not only cause a reduction in job performance but can aggravate the risk of common hazards and increase the risk of injury. It is not just the outside temperature that must be taken into consideration, but the wind chill, which is what the temperature actually feels like when the wind is factored in. According to the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) Administration, while there are no specific guidelines for working in cold environments, employers have a duty to protect workers from any hazards that could cause injury or death in the workplace. While it is left to the particular industry/employer to establish protocol, OSHA does recommend that employers train their employees to recognize the symptoms of cold stress, including hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia is dangerously low body temperature. Initial symptoms include shivering, followed by dizziness and disorientation. There may be loss of coordination that can be dangerous as it can lead to accidents and injuries. Eventually circulation starts to slow down and the heart stops, leading to death.
Frostbite is caused by the freezing of the skin and tissue that can damage blood vessels, resulting in a lack of oxygen. Severe frostbite can result in gangrene that requires amputation, and can even lead to death. In both cases, it is recommended to get the person to a warm place and provide immediate medical attention.
Preventing hypothermia and frostbite before they happen should be a priority. According to the National Safety Council, it is important to dress in layers and wear proper footwear to keep body heat trapped inside your clothes. Your outerwear should be wind- and water-proof to keep you dry. As the head and neck lose heat faster than any other part of the body, and your cheeks, ears, and nose are the most prone to frostbite, you should wear a hat, scarf, and turtleneck to protect these areas. Drink plenty of fluids to fuel your body and keep you warm, and eat foods with carbohydrates to give you quick energy.
While there is very little we can do about the weather, there is plenty we can do to protect ourselves from the negative effects on our bodies. Knowing the warning signs and what to if you or a coworker starts showing symptoms can help save a life.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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