Exposure to extreme weather conditions can cause serious illnesses, significant injuries, and even death, and the problem is much larger than many realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, approximately 10,650 fatalities were attributed to exposure to extreme weather conditions between the years of 2006 and 2010, with 6,660 (63%) of those being due to cold stress. Alarmingly, the state of Illinois ranks among the highest in the nation for deaths due to cold stress. A report from the National Weather Service states that approximately 23 weather related fatalities occurred in the state in 2014 alone, with the majority of them being due to cold stress.
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Injuries and Illnesses
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that individuals who work in freezers, outside agriculture, and outdoor construction are more susceptible to cold stress. Cold temperatures and winds cause the body to lose heat more quickly and can result in:
- Hypothermia: Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, can not only cause confusion and loss of coordination which may result in occupational accidents or injuries, but it can cause serious illness and fatality as well.
- Frostbite: Frostbite causes discoloration and the loss of feeling in areas affected. Severe frostbite can result in permanent damage to body tissues and even amputation.
- Chilblains: Chilblains causes permanent damage to small groups of blood vessels that results in itching and redness of the skin.
Reducing the Risk
The best way to deal with injuries caused by cold temperatures is to take measures to prevent them from happening in the first place. Fortunately, there are some things workers can do to help reduce their risk for cold stress related illness, injury or death.
- Dress Appropriately: Wear layered clothing for added insulation and avoid tight clothing which can reduce blood circulation to the extremities. Remember to wear boots that are waterproof and insulated, hats that cover the ears, and gloves.
- Take Breaks in Warm Locations: Whenever possible, seek warmth in buildings, vehicles, or near outdoor heaters during breaks.
- Drink Warm Liquids: Warm, sweetened liquids can help replenish the body’s ability to stay warm. Avoid alcohol.
- Be Aware: Monitor your own mental and physical condition and that of co-workers for signs and symptoms of cold stress.