How to prevent frostbite when working in harsh winter conditions

Updated Jan 24, 2024
Photo: PixabayPhoto: Pixabay

It’s a true yet inconvenient fact: in most places, life doesn’t simply stop when the weather dips below zero. That means that many of us must wake up, get dressed in our most extreme cold weather apparel and head to work, even when it’s so cold that our doors and windows are iced shut and area schools have closed for the day.

If you’re a landscaper who has to brave the harsh elements day in and day out in the winter, you’re probably aware of frostbite. But do you know the risk factors and the best steps for preventing it? Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissues freeze, which can result in lifelong damage and, in severe cases, even amputation. Frostbite begins when skin turns cold and red and then turns stiff, numb or pale. There is also a less severe condition called frostnip, which may trigger some of the same symptoms as frostbite but doesn’t cause permanent skin damage.

Landscape workers are at a high risk of frostbite when they work in conditions below freezing, with risk factors increasing drastically with a high wind and longer exposure times. Here is a good, quick guide to follow, according to TripSavvy:

  • Low frostbite risk: -16.6 to 32 Fahrenheit
  • Medium frostbite risk (10-30 minutes): -38.2 to -18.4 Fahrenheit
  • High frostbite risk (5-10 minutes): -52.6 F to -40 Fahrenheit
  • Extreme frostbite risk (2-5 minutes): -65.2 F to -54.4 Fahrenheit
  • Instant frostbite risk (less than 2 minutes): -65.2 Fahrenheit or colder

So, how do you prevent it? We’re so glad you asked.

1. Invest in the appropriate apparel

Step No. 1 of any good anti-frostbite strategy is to invest in the warm gear that doesn’t limit your ability to do your job properly. Find gear rated for your temperature zone, so you don’t overheat and sweat, and don’t expose yourself to the cold! The areas of your body that are the most vulnerable to frostbite and other cold-related health conditions are the ones that aren’t properly protected.

According to the Mayo Clinic, frostbite is most common on the toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Keep a close eye on these body parts when you’re working in freezing conditions, and make sure that you cover them properly. Here are the core components of a good anti-frostbite outfit: 

  • Warm, loose base layers that sit against the skin and help trap heat and regulate moisture
  • Water-repellant pants and a jacket or coveralls with serious insulation
  • A pair of insulated work gloves that protect hands without limiting dexterity
  • Some high-quality cold-weather headwear, including a face mask or balaclava
  • Warm, properly fitting socks and boots made with moisture-wicking materials

 2. Know the signs of frostbite

It’s vital that anyone who works in sub-zero temperatures knows how to quickly identify the signs of frostbite (and what to do if they are present). In general, identifying frostbite comes down to observing changes in the skin—how does it look, feel or behave? Here are some of the most common frostbite symptoms: 

  • Skin feels cold and may feel numb or prickly
  • Skin turns red, white, blue, gray or yellow
  • Skin looks hard, shiny or waxy
  • Skin begins to blister after it has been warmed up
  • Joints and muscles feel stiff and cause clumsiness

If you’re working in a group when temperatures are low, make sure that you initiate regular frostbite checks and monitor one another’s skin for signs.

3. Go inside when risks are high

It sounds obvious, but workers should never be outside for prolonged periods when the frostbite risk factor is heightened. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers help prevent cold stress and frostbite by decreasing their employees’ exposure to the cold. Employers should allow workers to take frequent breaks in warm, dry areas to let the body warm up and to schedule outside jobs to be completed during the warmest parts of the day.

OSHA also recommends that employers provide workers with warm drinks and radiant heaters. 

4. Avoid certain frostbite risk factors and triggers

The smallest adjustments can have big impacts. You probably aren’t aware of small things you are doing throughout the day that increase your frostbite risk. In addition to proper protection, there are some frostbite triggers that you need to avoid to ensure that you’re not increasing your risk, including:

  • Don’t wear tight-fitting clothing that traps cold or moisture against the skin
  • Don’t touch cold materials like metal, ice or anything frozen without proper protection
  • Be aware that working at high altitudes may limit your oxygen supply

It’s important to be aware that certain medical conditions and medications can worsen frostbite or increase your risk of developing it. Any medical conditions that affects an individual’s ability to properly detect or respond to cold can heighten your frostbite risk factor.

5. Know how to treat frostbite or when to see a doctor

In addition to knowing how to prevent frostbite, it’s vital that you know how to handle it when you’re on the job. Always keep an emergency supply kit on hand while you’re working, including one with blankets, warm water, pain medicine and other first-aid supplies.

The best thing you can do to treat frostbite is to gently rewarm the affected areas using warm water (ideally, between 99 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and get out of the cold weather immediately. Seek medical attention if you have a fever or experience shivering, slurred speech, worsening pain or new symptoms.

As long as you’ve got the proper frostbite knowledge, you can work safely in the most demanding winter conditions. Be sure to follow the appropriate prevention, identification and treatment protocols to stay safe in these tough environments.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Natalie Bucsko. Bucsko serves as the marketing communications specialist for RefrigiWear. From the Dahlonega, Georgia, headquarters, Bucsko oversees all content, including the website, knowledge center, blog, catalog, email, and social media.

The Attachments Idea Book
Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
Attachments Idea Book Cover