Depending on how long a person has been exposed to cold temperatures, hypothermia symptoms may vary. The earliest symptoms include fatigue, shivering, confusion and loss of coordination. As hypothermia progresses, it may cause blue skin, dilated pupils, lack of shivering, loss of consciousness, slowed breathing and a lowered pulse.
If a worker is suffering from hypothermia, it is important to act quickly. Let the workplace supervisor know immediately, and ask for medical assistance. Take the victim to a warmer room, remove clothing if it is wet and focus on warming the center of the body first. This should include the neck, head, chest and groin. Use dry layers of blankets or material. Do not give the person alcohol to drink, but a warm beverage may help if the person is conscious and able to drink. Once the victim’s body temperature has risen, keep the person wrapped up and warm in a blanket. Be sure the neck and head are covered. For victims who have no pulse, start CPR immediately and have someone call 911.
When a person is submerged in cold water, it creates a condition known as immersion hypothermia. This type develops considerably faster than the standard type, which is due to the body’s natural response of conducting heat away from itself 25 times quicker than it does with air. Immersion hypothermia can happen in any water that is below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Frostbite happens when part of the body freezes. It results in a loss of color and feeling, and it is most common in the ears, chin, cheeks, nose, toes and fingers. Frostbite can cause permanent tissue damage, and it may even lead to amputation of affected limbs or digits. Workers who are not dressed properly or have poor circulation are more prone to developing frostbite in cold temperatures. Tingling, numbness, stinging, waxy-looking skin and aching are common symptoms. If a worker exhibits symptoms, immerse the affected area in warm water, keep pressure off of it and seek medical attention.
There are other conditions to watch for such as trench foot, which happens when the feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions. It can occur at temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Another condition to watch for is chilblains, which are itchy areas that return with repeated exposure to cold. Ears, cheeks, nose and other exposed areas are usually affected. The itching is due to permanent capillary bed damage. Keeping workers safe is something all employers should make a top priority. The following tips are helpful for this:
- Be aware of dangerous environmental conditions in the workplace.
- Know the signs and treatments for illnesses or injuries caused by cold temperatures.
- Have workers wear appropriate clothing when working in cold or damp locations.
- Make sure workers are informed about cold-related injuries and illnesses
- If possible, have employees work during the warmer part of the day in colder months.
- Since energy keeps muscles warm, do not work employees to the point of exhaustion.
- Encourage workers to eat high-calorie foods that are warm when working in the cold.
- Make sure there is a warm and dry place where workers can take frequent breaks to warm up.
- Tell workers to avoid caffeine and choose warm or sugary beverages instead.
- Have employees work in pairs to ensure they may look for danger signs in one another.
- Workers who are taking certain medications, have poor physical health or have chronic illnesses face increased risks for cold-related injuries and illnesses.