Cold weather is an occupational health hazard for construction workers who labor outdoors in freezing temperatures. Currently, there are no specific federal regulations that govern protection of workers from cold weather, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may apply in severe cases.
Some common health problems that construction workers may face when working in the cold include:
- Hypothermia: Hypothermia is a drop in the body’s internal temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Victims of hypothermia are unable to think clearly or move well, making it difficult for a person to realize what is happening and react.
- Frostbite: Skin, muscle, blood vessels and nerves can freeze and form ice crystals, blocking blood flow. It is often irreversible, and victims may require amputation of the frostbitten limb. If the site heals without amputation, a person can suffer from chronic pain or numbness at the site. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes.
- Trench foot: Also called immersion foot, this occurs when a body part gets covered in water or mud just above freezing temperature. The area can become chronically weak, swollen and sensitive to the cold.
- Chilblains: Chilblains are caused by repeated exposure of the skin to temperatures just above freezing. Capillary beds in the skin are damaged, and can cause permanent redness and itching that return with additional exposure.
In addition to these problems, workers may experience flare-ups of pre-existing conditions, such as arthritis and asthma, due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Dexterity and coordination can be affected causing a decline in performance that affects safety.
There are some things that workers can do to minimize the risks of decreased performance or cold-related health problems:
- Wear three layers of loose fitting clothing to trap air and provide insulation. Cover the body, hands, feet and head. Selection of cold weather protection should also be in compliance with OSHA safety standards.
- Protect your feet by wearing waterproof, insulated boots.
- Move into warm locations (warming shelters) during work breaks, and limit the amount of time spent outdoors on extremely cold days.
- Keep track of the temperature.
- Stay dry. Sweating from entering a warming shelter or from intense activity can result in wet clothing. Change clothes if they become wet. When entering a heated area after being outside, brush off snow and frost immediately before it melts.
- Prepare for vehicle breakdowns. Workers who travel in the cold should be supplied with extra gear, including blankets and vehicle emergency supplies.
- Keep emergency telephone numbers nearby in case of medical emergency
- Use a “buddy system” to recognize signs of hypothermia in co-workers.
- Keep plenty of warm liquids around (soup, broth, coffee or tea) to avoid dehydration and to help stay warmer.