Winter weather certainly can be a downer. No one likes the feeling of being cold…it’s uncomfortable and a total nuisance. Especially when working outdoors. You then don all your outdoor gear and you get too hot underneath all those clothes after a few minutes of hard labor. There’s no winning, is there? Sigh, winter you ‘ol miser.

Despite the cold and misery, you still persevere and complete your work as you always do. If you get wrapped up in your work, you won’t notice the cold, right? While that may be true, the cold is still affecting your body whether you’re conscious of it or not. You’ve gone out in the cold hundreds of times to do your job. But that one day, where the temperature is just a few degrees colder than usual, and you could experience cold stress.

Cold stress is an umbrella term used to describe the various cold-related illnesses that can arise when working in cold conditions. Construction workers, roadway workers, contractors, and other occupations requiring outdoor work are susceptible to these cold-related illnesses during winter months.

Hypothermia– The Center for Disease Control defines Hypothermia as “[the] prolonged exposure to cold [that] will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it” (CDC).

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CDC states that early symptoms of Hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Confusion and disorientation

CDC also states that more prolonged hypothermia will manifest symptoms such as:

  • No shivering
  • Blue skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Slowed pulse and breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

If you suspect a coworker has hypothermia, here’s how you can treat them:

  • Alert the supervisor and request medical assistance.
  • Move the victim into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove their wet clothing.
  • Warm the center of their body first-chest, neck, head, and groin-using an electric blanket, if available; or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
  • Warm beverages may help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
  • After their body temperature has increased, keep the victim dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
  • If victim has no pulse, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).


Frostbite– To me, frostbite is literally the stuff of nightmares. It’s defined by CDC as “an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and

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color in the affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and severe cases can lead to amputation. In extremely cold temperatures, the risk of frostbite is increased in workers with reduced blood circulation and among workers who are not dressed properly” (CDC). So while you may think you’re fine without that hat today, or it might be getting toasty inside your winter gloves, think twice before removing them, and make sure all appendages aren’t exposed to the cold.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Reduced blood flow to hands and feet (fingers or toes can freeze)
  • Numbness
  • Tingling or stinging
  • Aching
  • Bluish or pail, waxy skin
cold stress


If you suspect early onset of frostbite, here’s what you can do to treat yourself:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes-this increases the damage.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm-not hot-water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
  • Warm the affected area using body heat; for example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Do not rub or massage the frostbitten area; doing so may cause more damage.
  • Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.


Trench Foot– This one is actually new to me, and I have to say, just the term “trench foot” sounds like it’s extremely unpleasant. Apparently it is, as CDC defines it as “an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F if the feet are constantly wet. Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet. Therefore, to prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products” (CDC).

cold stress


You may have trench foot if you’re experiencing these symptoms:

  • Reddening of the skin
  • Numbness
  • Leg cramps
  • Swelling
  • Tingling pain
  • Blisters or ulcers
  • Bleeding under the skin
  • Gangrene (the foot may turn dark purple, blue, or gray)


If you suspect you might be experiencing these symptoms, you should immediately remove your shoes and wet socks, dry your feet, and avoid walking on them.

Chillblains– I feel like this one is probably the most common one, as it’s described as “the repeated exposure of skin to temperatures just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees F. The cold exposure causes damage to the capillary beds (groups of small blood vessels) in the skin. This damage is permanent and the redness and itching will return with additional exposure. The redness and itching typically occur on cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes” (CDC).

cold stress


You may have chilblains if your symptoms are:

  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Possible blistering
  • Inflammation
  • Possible ulceration in severe cases

You can treat chilblains by:

  • Avoid scratching
  • Slowly warm the skin
  • Use corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling
  • Keep blisters and ulcers clean and covered


You can avoid chilblains by applying vaseline to your exposed cheeks, I vaguely remember my dad smearing it on my face before an afternoon of sledding growing up in rural Vermont.

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Bottom Line– I am totally guilty of not fully protecting myself from the cold, even for petty reasons. And while I don’t typically labor outside in the winter as many have to do every day for their occupation, there’s no reason why I should be arrogant enough to think I can go head to head with mother nature. Not taking the appropriate precautions to protect your body is self-abuse, and opens yourself up to be a victim to cold stress. The human body is a pip-squeak to compared to the wrath of the elements, and the best way to show it who’s boss is to make sure it completely un-affects you.

Source: NIOSH. “Types of Cold-related Illnesses.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 July 2016. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

Related Safety Training

cold stressCold Stress – Working Safely In Cold Weather Training by Aurora Pictures
cold stressCold Stress Training Video by Atlantic Training

cold stressCold Stress Training Video by Convergence


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