Protecting Workers from Cold Stress

What should these workers be wearing to protect themselves from cold stress while sanding this icy road?

In the winter, it’s important to ensure that workers who work outside are adequately protected from weather conditions, such as extreme cold, high winds and snow. Exposure to such conditions without appropriate safeguards can put workers at risk of cold stress. One key safeguard is proper clothing.

For example, at first glance, the workers in this picture from the Mirror UK may appear to be properly dressed for this wintery outdoor task. But neither of them is wearing a hat, a key piece of clothing to keep them from losing body heat through their heads. In addition, the worker on the left isn’t wearing gloves, which puts his hands and fingers at risk of frostbite.

What Is Cold Stress?

Cold stress—that is, exposure to low temperatures, wind and/or snow/freezing rain—can lead to several conditions. Common forms of cold stress include the following:

Hypothermia: Hypothermia, sometimes called exposure, occurs when the body can no longer produce more heat than it’s losing. The person’s normal body temperature drops to 35°C or less. Wind, wet and cold are the key factors that lead to hypothermia. Wind can chill the body. Water rapidly absorbs body heat. In fact, wet clothing is a common cause of hypothermia.

Mild Symptoms: alert but shivering

Moderate to Severe Symptoms: shivering stops; confusion; slurred speech; heart rate or breathing slow; loss of consciousness; death


  • Call 911 immediately in an emergency
  • To prevent further heat loss:

––Move the worker to a warm place.

––Change to dry clothes.

––Cover the worker’s body (including the head and neck) with blankets and with something to block the cold (such as a tarp, garbage bag). Don’t cover the person’s face.

  • If medical help is more than 30 minutes away:

––Give the worker warm, sweetened drinks, if alert (no alcohol).

––Apply heat packs to the armpits, sides of chest, neck and groin.

Frostbite: Body tissues freeze, especially hands and feet. It can occur at temperatures above freezing, due to wind chill. Frostbite may result in amputation.

Symptoms: numbness; reddened skin develops gray/white patches; skin feels firm/hard and may blister


  • Follow the above recommendations for hypothermia
  • Don’t rub the frostbitten area
  • Avoid walking on frostbitten feet
  • Don’t apply snow/water and don’t break blisters
  • Loosely cover and protect the area from contact
  • Don’t try to rewarm the area unless directed by medical personnel to do so.

Trench Foot (also known as Immersion Foot): It’s a non-freezing injury to the foot, caused by lengthy exposure to wet and cold environment. It can occur at air temperature as high as 15.5°C, if feet are constantly wet.

Symptoms: redness, swelling, numbness and blisters


  • Remove the worker’s wet shoes/socks
  • Air dry the feet in warm area
  • Keep affected feet elevated and avoid walking
  • Get medical attention.


The OHS laws require employers to take steps to protect workers exposed to cold stress, such as by implementing a cold stress policy and cold exposure control plan.

So here are some cold stress tips from the CDC for employers:

  • Schedule maintenance and repair jobs in cold areas for warmer months.
  • Schedule cold jobs for the warmer part of the day.
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers.
  • Use relief workers or assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs.
  • Provide warm liquids to workers and warm areas for use during breaks.
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress.

Provide cold stress training that includes information on:

  • Worker risk
  • Prevention
  • Symptoms
  • The importance of monitoring yourself and co-workers for symptoms
  • Treatment
  • PPE (Give them this handout as part of your training).

And workers should follow these recommendations to protect themselves from cold stress:

  • Wear several layers of loose clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
  • Avoid tight clothing, which reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.
  • When choosing clothing, be aware that bulky clothing may restrict movement, resulting in a hazardous situation.
  • Make sure to protect the ears, face, hands and feet in extremely cold weather.
  • Boots should be waterproof and insulated.
  • Wear a hat—it’ll keep your whole body warmer by reducing the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
  • Move into warm locations during breaks; limit time outside on very cold days.
  • Carry cold weather gear, such as extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, a change of clothes and a thermos of hot liquid.
  • Include a thermometer and chemical hot packs in your first aid kit.
  • Avoid touching cold metal surfaces with bare skin.
  • Monitor your physical condition and that of your co-workers.