Deep Freeze Spurs Worker Alert


With the “Polar Vortex” clamping killer cold on much of the United States, safety advocates are issuing warnings and resources to protect those who work outside.

"...[W]hile many construction sites will shut down, with new technologies—like chemical additives that allow concrete to cure in low temperatures—cold weather no longer puts the construction industry in a deep freeze," Pete Stafford, executive director of CPWR: The Center for Construction Research and Training, wrote in an advisory issued Tuesday (Jan. 7).

"That means a lot of workers are exposed to extreme weather."

Stafford adds: "Extended exposure to freezing or cold temperatures can result in health problems such as trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia."

'You Don't Gain Anything'

Much of the United States was expected to see record-breaking cold on Tuesday, with temperatures near or below zero over much of the eastern half of the country.

That was enough to put many projects on ice nationwide, even in normally cold climates where workers are both hardy and prepared for winter's worst. The Minnesota Department of Transportation suspended outdoor work on several projects, in deference to both crews and equipment.

“You don’t gain anything by working outside in these temperatures,” Dave Semerad, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, told Finance & Commerce.

“You put your employees and your equipment at risk, and your productivity decreases to a level where it doesn’t make good sense.”

Cold Dangers

At 0° F (-17.8° C), any exposed flesh can freeze within one minute, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes.

Cold worker

Exposed flesh can freeze in one minute when the temperature hits 0° F, OSHA advises. But hypothermia can be a risk even at 40°F for workers who are wet or unprepared.

"When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result," OSHA reports in its Cold Stress Card, available in English or Spanish, one of the free resources the agency offers to protect workers in cold environments.

OSHA also offers a Cold Stress Guide with emergency preparedness advice for workers in cold environments.

CPWR, meanwhile, has developed a Toolbox Talk on Cold Weather Safety that can be downloaded free.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also offers detailed Cold Stress resources and guides on its website.

Physical impairment isn't the only risk. Judgment, reaction time and concentration can all be compromised by extreme cold, experts note.

How Cold is Too Cold?

The dangers of cold exposure vary with the individual, the working conditions, medications and even the normal climate, experts say. In some cases, a worker in a warm-weather climate may be less prepared for—and more affected by—mild cold than a cold-weather worker is by extreme cold.

Weather map

Much of the U.S. was in the grip of record-breaking cold on Tuesday.

Hypothermia can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F), if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Workers working near water are at particular risk of immersion hypothermia, which can occur in any water temperature below 70°F. Immersion hypothermia develops much more quickly than standard hypothermia because water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, according to NIOSH.

General danger signs of over-exposure to cold include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue, disorientation and confused behavior.

Frostbite OSHA Cold Chart
NIOSH (left); OSHA (right)

Frostbite can occur quickly and most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. The risk increases in workers with reduced blood circulation and those not dressed properly.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Gray or white patches developing in reddened skin; 
  • Numbness;
  • An area that feels firm or hard; and/or
  • Blistering, in severe cases.

Prevention Tips

To protect workers and prevent injuries, experts advise:


CPWR's free Toolbox Talk advises a buddy system for workers in the cold.

  • Encouraging or requiring workers to wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions. Workers should wear layers and a hat, gloves and underwear that deflects water from the skin.
  • Having workers work in pairs (as a buddy system), so that one worker can recognize danger signs in another.
  • Drinking warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports drinks) and avoiding caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas or hot chocolate) and alcohol.
  • Urging workers to be aware of side effects or sensitivities from medication; and
  • Realizing that workers in poor physical condition or those with chronic conditions (diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease) will be more vulnerable to the cold than others.

Tagged categories: CPWR; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NIOSH; OSHA; Workers

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.