Male, older workers at risk for cold-related injury

Employers and occupational health providers should take extra steps to protect workers exposed to cold weather conditions, and the U.S. Labor Department is offering tips to help avoid serious injury.

More than 700 people die of hypothermia in the United States every year, and the Labor Department cautions that some workers can be at increased risk because they have to work in weather conditions most people would avoid, and their work requirements might make it difficult to bundle up and protect themselves. Workers at highest risk are in construction, commercial fishing, and agricultural work.

The Labor Department cites these major risk factors for cold-related injury:
• wearing inadequate or wet clothing;
• taking certain drugs or medications or other substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and medications that inhibit the body’s response to cold or impair judgment;
• having a cold or diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or vascular and thyroid problems;
• being male, possibly because of increased risk-taking, reduced body-fat, and other physiological differences;
• becoming exhausted or immobilized, especially because of entrapment;
• being older.

These engineering controls and work practices can help protect workers:
• Use an on-site source of heat, such as air jets, radiant heaters, or contact warm plates.
• Shield work areas from drafts or wind.
• Provide a heated shelter for workers who experience prolonged exposure to wind chill temperatures of =< 20 degrees F.
• Use thermal insulating handles on equipment handles when temperatures drop below 30 degrees F.
• Adjust to the cold before embarking on a full-work schedule.
• Allow workers to set their own space and take extra breaks if needed.
• Minimize the work performed outdoors, and schedule it for the warmest part of the day.
• Ensure that workers remain hydrated.
• Use a buddy system when working outdoors.
• Educate employees about the symptoms of cold-related stresses — heavy shivering, severe fatigue, drowsiness, or euphoria.