Proper Workwear Can Help Prevent “Cold Stress”

Choosing outer garments that are insulated, but do not have much added bulk that could interfere with worker mobility, is important to help protect workers from cold stress.

As the winter season begins, keeping outdoor workers safe from falling air temperatures is a priority for many businesses across the country, even in regions that are not accustomed to frigid winter weather. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), exposing workers to extreme cold, near-freezing temperatures, wet conditions, and wind chill are all considered risk factors for “cold stress.”

Cold stress occurs when a person’s skin temperature decreases, and eventually the internal body temperature along with it. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, along with the potential for permanent tissue damage and even death. The most common types of cold stress include hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.

Colder temperatures can affect any outdoor worker exposed for extended periods, including those who work in facility management, snow cleanup, construction, electric utilities, and roadside-related. Other workers who could be affected include those working in transit, baggage handling, water transportation, landscaping services, and oil and gas operations. Cold stress can also be brought on when outdoor workers return to work after a long absence, or for others who are new to the job, as their bodies may not be as accustomed to the weather conditions.

Even workers in warmer climates (above freezing) can be exposed to the effects of cold stress from increased and sustained wind speeds, which can cause heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness caused by precipitation and body sweat can also facilitate heat loss from the body.

Dressing properly, including selecting garments constructed with protective fabrics if applicable, is one of the best ways for businesses to help prevent cold stress from affecting their workers. Businesses can benefit from a managed uniform program by receiving expert assistance from a reputable service provider who can review work requirements and help identify the right types of garments needed to effectively protect their outdoor workers. Other benefits of a managed uniform program include weekly uniform laundering and maintenance, quality inspections, and mending and replacing of garments as needed.

The following are 10 tips to consider, many of which are endorsed by OSHA, to help protect workers from cold stress:

  1. Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing, designed with the appropriate types of fabrics, as proper layering provides improved insulation from the elements.
  2. Select garments close to the body that are made with “breathable” fabrics, such as moisture-wicking synthetics, to help workers stay dry and comfortable.
  3. Choose outer garments that are insulated but do not have much added bulk that could interfere with worker mobility.
  4. Consider outerwear that is water repellent to aid worker protection from rain, sleet, or snow.
  5. Select outer garments that also have built-in ventilation to help prevent excessive sweating and help keep workers dry.
  6. Wear a hat or hood to help keep the entire body warm; hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes.
  7. Use a knit mask to cover and help protect the face and mouth. Wraparound eye protection can also help preserve body heat and prevent eyes from drying out due to cold.
  8. Use insulated gloves to protect the hands.
  9. Wear double-layer thermal socks and insulated, waterproof footwear.
  10. Ensure workers take regular breaks and, when possible, warm up indoors with hot beverages (no alcohol) to increase body temperature.

While working outdoors in the winter can be challenging, following these basic tips and participating in a managed uniform program can help businesses protect outdoor workers from the effects of cold stress, allowing them to consistently get the job done safely.

Further reading: Winter Weather Preparedness, OSHA

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