Frostbite is a common workplace injury in colder climates, and employers must protect their workers from cold weather injuries that can lead to amputation and life-long disabilities. When these injuries do occur, employees can claim workers’ compensation for frostbite.
Is Frostbite Covered Under Workers’ Compensation?
In areas when temperatures reach minus-degree digits during winter, outdoor workers face real dangers of frostbite. A worker whose skin is exposed to subzero temperatures can get frostbite within 30 minutes. If the weather includes rain, snow, sleet, or wind, it only takes 15 minutes to suffer frostbite injuries that can lead to frozen skin tissues, amputated body parts, and permanent loss of feeling in affected areas.
Frostbite causes burn-like injuries to a person’s skin and underlying tissues that freeze. The body parts most commonly affected include fingers, toes, cheeks, chin, nose, and earlobes. Symptoms of frostbite begin with sensations of pins and needles, then progress to numbness and loss of feeling. As frostbite progresses, the skin becomes stiff and turns very pale or blue. Workers with these symptoms should be immediately sent indoors to warmer temperatures to prevent severe injuries. If severe frostbite occurs, injuries will require immediate medical treatment to preserve affected tissues and limbs.
Identifying the Stages of Frostbite
Since frostbite can happen so quickly, outdoor workers must be protected. Symptoms of frostbite depend on how deep it goes into the body. While early stages of frostbite usually affect the top layers of skin, workers’ comp lawyers see advanced stages that cause injuries to bones and muscles.
Early Stage Frostbite (Frostnip)
Referred to as frostnip, the early stages of frostbite primarily impact the extremities, such as fingers, toes, ears, and the nose. Symptoms of this stage include tingling sensations and numb, white, and cold skin.
Intermediate Stage Frostbite
Once early frostbite sets in, employees become at risk for developing intermediate stage frostbite if exposure to cold temperatures persists. Signs of intermediate frostbite begin while the employee is still outside, and take the form of hardening and freezing of the impacted area. Once the victim returns to safer temperatures, he or she will notice redness, blistering, swelling, and itching. While this stage of frostbite significantly impacts the upper layers of skin, there are generally no long term side effects.
Advanced Stage Frostbite
When a victim fails to retreat to safer temperatures after signs of intermediate frostbite begin, he or she runs the risk of developing advanced stage frostbite. During this stage, the skin turns white and blue, or “blotchy.” Damage from advanced stage frostbite continues beneath the surface, and impacts the tissue, tendions, and nerves, and bones. As the skin thaws, tissue necrosis may set in, and affected tissue may need to be removed.
Preventing Frostbite in the Workplace
Outdoor workers who face frostbite dangers should be protected with proper clothing. Layers of clothing are important to allow body heat to circulate properly. Tight-fitting clothing increases the risk of frostbite. Three layers are recommended:
- First Layer – The first layer worn closest to the skin should be made from a material that prevents moisture. Wicking materials used in ski clothing and cold weather jackets are best for keeping the skin dry.
- Second Layer – The second layer worn over the first layer should be made of fleece or wool that provides body warmth and helps to keep heat close to the body.
- Third Layer – The third layer worn on top should repel wind and water. If wind and water reach the second layer, dangers of frostbite injuries increase significantly.
In addition to layered clothing, outdoor workers should wear warm hats, face masks, gloves, and shoes that keep skin warm and dry. Frostbite can occur quickly on unprotected fingers, toes, and areas on the face and ears.