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Pennsylvania workers beware -- cold stress can be deadly

Workers whose occupations expose them to the cold conditions have to face possible illness every year. Dangerous conditions can even exist indoors in cold storage areas or unheated buildings.

Working in areas that expose employees to wind can also cause their bodies to lose heat, often resulting in cold stress. Those who are most vulnerable to adverse effects of exposure to cold include workers who are older along with those with heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

What is cold stress?

The collective term for several cold-related conditions is cold stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies those conditions as follows:

  • Chilblains: These are painful spots of skin inflammation that result from repeated exposure to cold air -- but not freezing. They can cause itchy swelling and blistering on toes and fingers.
  • Trench foot: This condition develops from prolonged standing in wet and cold conditions. It may cause numbness, redness, swelling and sensory disturbances which could cause bleeding or blisters, and in severe cases, gangrene.
  • Frostbite: This injury occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze. The skin will become very cold, pale and numb, and the body parts typically affected are the nose, chin, cheeks and ears, along with toes and fingers.
  • Hypothermia: This is the most dangerous type of cold stress because it can lead to death. The cause is typically a drop in body temperature at a rate that is faster than the rate at which the body can produce heat. The first signs include shivering, confusion and exhaustion. However, as the condition deteriorates, the shivering may cease, and the breathing and pulse of the worker may slow. Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition.

Prevention

The best way to protect workers from the effects of cold stress is to make sure they wear protective clothing. This includes warm, insulated but waterproof boots, gloves and headgear that also covers the ears. Wearing layers of clothing may be wise because it can trap air that could keep the body warm. However, the layer worn against the skin must keep the skin dry while the outer layer must protect against rain and wind. Fabrics that allow ventilation are most effective.

Employers must provide adequate safety training, provide warm, sweet beverages and allocate jobs in teams or pairs. Workers should not work isolated in cold conditions to ensure there is always someone to call for help in an emergency.

What can affected workers do?

Just like with heat-related illness, cold stress requires prompt medical treatment. The severity of the consequences will depend on the time delay before obtaining medical care. Victims of cold stress in the workplace need not concern themselves over the mounting medical bills and the loss of income because the workers' compensation insurance program provides financial relief. Employees may focus on recovering while they use the skills of an experienced workers' compensation attorney to navigate benefits claims on their behalves.

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