Safety watch: Keeping an eye out for cold stress

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Updated Jan 18, 2024

Shutterstock 743819602With winter weather here, now is the time to think about protection against cold stress.

Take a look at how you can learn to identify the different types of cold stress and how it can be prevented from affecting your landscaping crew this winter.

Cold stress and wind chill

The term “cold stress” as well as its effects can be defined differently depending on where you’re located in the country.

For regions unfamiliar with winter weather, temperatures that reach near freezing are considered cold stress factors. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), increased wind speed, also known as wind chill effect, can cause heat to leave the body more quickly, and dampness or wetness also causes heat to leave the body, even if it’s from sweating.

OSHA defines wind chill as the rate of heat loss from the human body, resulting from the combined effect of lower air temperature and wind speed.

“Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature,” OSHA says online. “When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result.”

According to OSHA, workers can be at risk of cold stress when environments are wet or damp, when they are not dressed properly for the weather, when they are physically exhausted and when they are in poor physical condition.

“Environmental cold can affect any worker exposed to cold air temperatures and puts workers at risk of cold stress,” OSHA says online. “As wind speed increases, it causes the cold air temperature to feel even colder, increasing the risk of cold stress to exposed workers, especially those working outdoors…”

Other risk factors OSHA lists are workers with predisposing health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and hypothyroidism.

Knowing the types

Immersion/trench foot

Trench foot, also known as immersion, is a non-freezing injury of the feet that’s caused by prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions, and it can occur in temperatures as high as 60°F if the feet are constantly wet.

These injuries, OSHA says, occur because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Symptoms of trench foot include reddening skin, pain, tingling, swelling, numbness, blisters, and leg cramps.

If you find an employee or fellow worker suffering from trench foot, immediately call 911, remove the wet footwear and wet socks, dry the feet and avoid working on them further, keep the feet elevated and avoid walking.


Frostbite is caused by the skin and tissues freezing. It can cause permanent damage to the body, and in severe cases can lead to amputation. OSHA says that the risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people not properly dressed for extremely cold temperatures.

Symptoms of frostbite include reddened skin that’s developed gray or white patches in the fingers, toes, ear lobes, or nose, and tingling, aching, loss of feeling and blisters may occur in the affected areas.

If someone on your crew if suffering from frostbite, call 911 immediately, protect the frostbitten area by wrapping it loosely in a dry cloth and protect the area from contact until medical help arrives. Avoid rubbing the area, as this can cause damage to the skin and tissue. Do not apply snow or water, and do not break blisters.

OSHA recommends not trying to re-warm the frostbitten area before getting medical help, using heating pads or placing in warm water. If the frostbitten area is rewarmed and then freezes again, more tissue damage will occur.


Hypothermia occurs when the normal body temperature drops to less than 95°F. The body loses heat faster when exposed to cold temperatures, and prolonged exposure to cold can eventually use up the body’s stored energy, resulting in hypothermia.

The symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, unconsciousness, slowed heart rate, slowed breathing, and possibly death.

When body temperature drops too low, the brain is affected. This leads hypothermia victims to be unable to think clearly or move well and leaves them unaware of what’s happening and unable to do anything about it.

If a crew member is suffering from hypothermia, move the worker to a warm, dry area, remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Wrap the entire body in layers of blankets and a vapor barrier but avoid covering the face.

How to prevent cold stress

While OSHA says it might not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, it does add that under the OSHA Act of 1970, employers do have a duty to protect workers from hazards that are recognized that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace, including cold stress hazards.

For those who will be out in the elements, it’s important to remember that wind chill temperature is a factor to consider when trying to gauge a worker’s exposure risk, as well as how experienced the worker is with working in these kinds of situations.

OSHA recommends training employees on how to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress, the symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent it and what to do to help those affected by it. OSHA also advises teaching employees how to select the proper clothing for cold, windy, and wet conditions.

Always be sure to keep an eye on the physical condition of your workers when performing outdoor jobs, whether they are returning employees or new ones. Schedule frequent short breaks in areas that are warm and dry to allow employees to warm up, and try to schedule breaks during the warmest part of the day.

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