Being at the mercy of the weather is one of the many challenges that contractors face on a daily basis. As the winter months begin, it’s time to start preparing for working outside in the extreme cold.
Health Effects of Cold Weather
Extreme cold and its effects can vary across various areas of the U.S. In areas that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures may be considered “extremely cold.” Other regions, however, may be familiar with subzero temperatures during the winter. Cold environments force the human body to work harder in order to maintain core temperature. When temperatures drop below normal and wind speed increases, vital heat can leave the body very quickly. Wind Chill Factor is another important thing to keep an eye on while working outdoors; the wind chill factor is the temperature which the human body feels when wind speed and air temperature are combined. For example, if the air temp is 30 degrees and the wind speed is clocking in around 25 mph the effect on exposed skin would make it feel as if it were 16 degrees Fahrenheit out.
Here’s a helpful link that may help you determine the wind chill factor: Wind Chill Factor Calculator
What is Hypothermia?
When the human body is exposed to cold temperatures, 90% of heat loss escapes through the skin with the remainder of heat loss being released from the lungs. The skin’s heat loss occurs primarily through radiation, and the rate increases if the skin is exposed to moisture or wind. If the body is subjected to being immersed in cold water, the heat loss may occur up to 25 times faster than it would if it were to be exposed to air of the same temperature.
During cold exposure the body’s temperature control system works to raise the body’s temperature by triggering different responses in order to heat and cool the body. For instance, blood vessels constrict and temporarily narrow while the muscles in the body shiver as a protective response that produces heat via muscular activity.
Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost more quickly than it can be replaced, resulting in the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees dropping to less than 95 degrees. Hypothermia is most common in very cold weather, but it can also occur in cooler temperatures if a person’s body is chilled from sweat, rain, or being submerged in cold water.
Assessing and Treating Hypothermia
Recognizing the symptoms is one of the first steps in diagnosing hypothermia. Most hospitals and emergency rooms are equipped with a special thermometer that is designed to detect very low core body temperatures and confirm a diagnosis. However, here are a few symptoms that might help you recognize whether you or someone else is suffering from hypothermia.
Hypothermia symptoms in adults may include the following:
- Shivering, which may subside as the hypothermia progresses (shivering is actually a good sign because it means that the person’s heat regulatory system is still active)
- Confusion and memory loss
- Shallow, slow breathing
- Mumbled or slurred speech
- Exhaustion or drowsiness
- A slow weak pulse
- Loss of coordination
- In a severe case of hypothermia the sufferer may be unconscious without any obvious signs of a pulse or breathing
How to Treat Hypothermia
Hypothermia is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
However if medical care isn’t available immediately take the following actions:
- Remove any soaked clothes
- Protect the person from wind, drafts, or any other heat loss factor with warm blankets or dry clothes
- Move the person suffering from hypothermia gently to a dry, warm shelter ASAP
- Begin to re-warm the person with extra clothing and warm blankets. Heating pads or hot packs can be applied to armpits, neck, or groin. Just be careful because using those items could potentially cause burns to the skin.
- If a thermometer is available take the person’s temperature
- Try to offer the person warm liquids, but be cautious and avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can speed up the heat loss. Do not attempt to give an unconscious person fluids!
If the patient exhibits no signs of breathing or are unconscious, call for emergency help ASAP. CPR should be given to the patient immediately if a pulse can’t be felt and there is no sign of breathing. You should feel for a pulse for up to an entire minute before attempting CPR as the heart rate may be extremely slow and CPR should not be attempted if there is any heart beat present.
How to Prevent Hypothermia
Here are some tips on how you can avoid hypothermia in the first place. Some of them are plain common sense but some of them might not be common knowledge.
- Dress warm and use layers
- Cover as much of your skin as possible
- Stay as dry as possible
- Don’t over-exert yourself
- Protect your body from wind, snow, or rain by wearing apparel designed to block wind or moisture
- Pack a survival kit
- Stay hydrated and eat high-energy snacks
The Dangers of Frostbite
Frostbite is another seriously dangerous but also treatable condition can occur among those who spend a lot of time in cold weather. Frostbite occurs when skin isn’t properly covered and is exposed to freezing temperatures. Just as water turns to ice in temperatures below 32 degrees, your skin and exposed body parts can freeze. How quickly this can occur depends largely upon the outside temperature and the wind chill factor. In extremely cold weather situations, frostbite can happen in just 5 minutes.
Here’s how to recognize and also prevent frostbite from occurring.
When the weather outside is cold and skin is exposed to the elements you may notice that the exposed skin may become red or sore. This is not frostbite but “frostnip”, which is an early warning sign of frostbite. If you notice this occurring, cover up and/or find shelter from the cold immediately.
The Stages of Frostbite
The Early Stage
- You may notice that your skin turns white or pale yellow
- Your skin may begin to sting, burn, itch, or feel like “pins and needles.”
The Intermediate Stage
- Your skin becomes hard
- Your skin looks shiny or waxy
- When your skin thaws out, blisters filled with blood or fluid forms
The Advanced Stage
- Your skin is very hard and cold to the touch
- Your skin darkens quickly and it may look blue and then later turn black
A major danger concerning frostbite is the fact that you might not realize that you are suffering from frostbite because of the fact that you will lose feeling in the affected area. This can lead to the frostbite doing more damage. That’s one of the reasons that it’s so important to keep an eye out for changes in the color of your skin.
All of the tips for hypothermia can be applied to this section, so here are a few tips specifically for preventing frostbite:
- Make sure that you cover your ears and head with a hat. Your ears can be a major target for frostbite, so keep them warm
- Make certain that you wear insulated mittens or gloves. Your fingers will also be easily subjected to frostbite.
- Wear wool or heated socks and warm waterproof boots to protect your feet and toes
- If you sweat, unzip at least for a couple minutes so that you don’t soak through your clothes
When should you go to the Emergency Room?
If you have any of the following symptoms you should seek medical attention as soon as possible
- Skin changes color or becomes hard
- Skin stays numb
- Severe pain occurs as the skin thaws
- Skin blisters begin to form
If your job as a contractor requires you to spend these cold months outdoors, be sure to keep these tips in mind to help you to stay safe through the winter!
Also check out our guide about dealing with the summer heat: Heat Illness and Recognizing Signs of Heat Stroke
–Written by Dane Gustafson