Tips for Working in Extreme Cold

Working in winter’s extreme cold is a fact of life for many people. If you’re employed in the construction, transportation or energy industries in some North American locations, you’ll likely know what it’s like to have Jack Frost nipping at your nose. You’ll also know how important it is to take cold weather safety precautions.

Workplace winter safety is paramount when you’re outdoors in freezing temperatures. Cold air presents a significant health danger, especially when the wind picks up. The last thing you want is yourself or your workers suffering a life-threatening phenomenon called cold stress. Fortunately, cold stress can be readily managed as long as you take appropriate measures to control and prevent it.

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What Is Cold Stress?

Cold stress is a very real condition recognized by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It’s also known as hypothermia in the medical field. Cold stress happens when your body’s core temperature drops below its normal rate of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. With a low core temperature, your body might not be able to naturally warm itself, which leads to permanent tissue damage or even death.

Hypothermia, or cold stress, occurs when low temperatures drive down your skin’s warmth, which progressively cools your inner core. Wind and wetness are the biggest factors causing cold stress. However, other contributing factors amplify a hypothermic situation such as poor overall health, hunger, dehydration and fatigue.

Avoiding prolonged exposure to cold temperatures is your primary defense against cold stress. Having the proper clothing and other personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for cold weather working is equally important if you can’t avoid some exposure to cold conditions. Then, you have to stay as dry as possible under your PPE and do everything you can to block the wind.

Wind chill is extremely dangerous and a leading factor in lowering temperatures at a worksite. It’s the effect of air movement across your body, and it is extremely hazardous to exposed parts like your face and hands. Wind chill also affects your clothed areas, as it creates an increased condition where your body heat radiates through layers of artificial insulation.

There’s an inverse relationship between wind speed and temperature drop. The National Weather Service's wind chill chart shows how quickly temperatures drop as wind velocity increases. Here are some examples of how increased wind can change the temperature you feel when you’re working in the cold.

  • Static temperature +32F + wind speed 10 mph = wind chill -16F
  • Static temperature +32F + wind speed 30 mph = wind chill -26F
  • Static temperature -0F + wind speed 10 mph = wind chill -41F
  • Static temperature -0F + wind speed 30 mph = wind chill -53F
  • Static temperature -30F + wind speed 10 mph = wind chill -53F
  • Static temperature -30F + wind speed 30 mph = wind chill –67F

A wind chill of -67F is excruciatingly cold and potentially deadly, but -67F isn’t the coldest static temperature ever recorded in the United States. That distinction goes to Prospect Creek Camp in Alaska, which saw -80F on January 23, 1971. With a 30 mph wind, the chill would be off the charts.

Alaska might be a winter land of cold wind with ice and snow, but the central parts of the U.S. see their fair share of winter coldness. The average winter temperature in the continental United States is +33.2F, which is slightly above water’s freezing point. However, if you match a +33F static temperature with a 40 mph wind speed, the mercury drops to -13F, which will freeze exposed skin in no time.

Cold stress can happen in relatively warm weather. It’s sure to occur in extremely cold weather unless you take the right precautions to manage yourself and your crew. To help you and your workers stay warm and dry, here are some tips for working in extreme cold.


Tips for Working in Extreme Cold

Safely working in extreme cold is all about heat management. Your body is a natural furnace that converts food to energy. Part of the energy-converting process is regulating your inner core at a healthy +98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as you stay at your ideal body temperature, you’ll be perfectly comfortable all day long. Unfortunately, the weather has other plans.

You can’t control the weather, but you certainly can control what you do while working in extreme cold. These are the main defenses you can employ to stay safe and warm while outside:

  • Wear cold-weather clothing: Wearing suitable clothing is critical for insulating you against the cold. The best cold-weather clothing works as an insulation system, incorporating layers that trap heat inside the clothing envelope. Today, you have a great choice of high-tech fabrics and fills that function extremely well for keeping your heat in and the cold out.
  • Use personal protective equipment: When you think of cold-weather PPE, boots and mitts probably come to mind. They’re critical insulators against cold transmitted from the ground as well as from frozen objects you touch. But don’t forget about using other PPE warmers like face shields and earmuffs.
  • Try electric warmers: There are excellent electric-powered garments available through leading tool manufacturers. Many brands offer rechargeable jackets, vests and gloves. You might even look into electrically heated boots, as well.
  • Use disposable warmers: You’ve probably heard of disposable warming devices you can put inside your boots, mitts or pants pockets. Many call them hot-shots, which are a generic name for low-cost PPE heaters that work through a chemical reaction. Some of these inexpensive warmers radiate heat for half a day, which is an excellent value for keeping extremities warm in cold weather.
  • Be aware of wetness and dryness: Being wet is a serious threat to your heat retention. Wet garments wick heat from your skin. This can lead to hypothermic effects in no time. Staying dry is a must when you’re in cold climates, and that’s easy to accomplish with a little care like layering your clothes.
  • Practice layering: This is an age-old trick for keeping warm and dry in the cold. Rather than having one large and bulky outer garment insulating your body, you’re much better off by dressing in multiple layers. You should have light underwear against your skin and overlay it with progressively thicker materials.
  • Stay hydrated: Make sure you’re well-hydrated when working in extreme cold. Hydration lets your body process food and create heat energy. Warm beverages are best because they go down without requiring your digestive system to expend valuable heat by warming up liquids.
  • Prioritize nutrition: With your body exerting more heat energy in the cold compared to when it’s warmer, you require high-energy nutrition to generate your body heat. Although there are many foods and drinks advertised as “energy” sources, you want to opt for natural foods containing proteins, fatty acids and B vitamins. Eggs, fish and apples are great sources of natural energy.
  • Take rest breaks: It’s important to take rest breaks when you’re working in extreme cold. Your body needs to recharge and rebuild strength. Resting lets your muscles relax and your digestive system process foods. Without periodic resting, fatigue will set in, and your core temperature will drop.
  • Keep moving: There’s a problem with too much rest in extreme cold. Without some muscle movement, your body naturally decreases energy production, which also causes your inner temperature to react. You need to find a balance between over and under exertion to stay comfortably warm in the cold.
  • Use the buddy system: It’s dangerous to work alone in extremely cold weather conditions. If you’re alone and you start experiencing a hypothermic reaction, you might not have any help to turn to. It’s a wise tip to work in a buddy system where you can watch each other and react if you see a problem developing.
  • Establish shelter: Taking shelter from the cold is a basic human survival instinct. However, if there’s work to be done in the extreme cold, you’ll have to improvise. Building a windbreak is an effective way to prevent heat loss from wind chill. Be innovative and find a creative way to make some shelter from the cold.
  • Have an auxiliary heat source: If you can’t move your work inside and out of the extreme cold, then you can always devise some source of auxiliary heat. You might make a simple wood-burning fire or start a torch from some sort of fuel. By making a combination of temporary shelter with a windbreak and adding auxiliary heat, you can artificially raise your environment to a tolerable temperature.
  • Avoid metal contact: Touching low-temperature metal with your exposed skin can have nasty consequences. It’s especially bad if your skin is wet. Be aware of all metal sources when you’re working in the extreme cold. They can be as dangerous as touching a hot stove.
  • Administer first aid: When you’re working in extreme cold, be ready for someone to succumb to hypothermia or have a cold-related accident. Your first-aid plan must include a warm environment to access immediately. That might be a building, a vehicle or some piece of construction equipment you can use as a warm shelter.
  • Educate your team: It's your responsibility to educate yourself and your workers about cold weather working and the associated hazards. There’s a return on the time spent making sure everyone on your site is fully aware of what temperatures to expect, what wind chill will happen and what to do if they’re extending their comfort zone. OSHA has some excellent educational tips on how to protect workers in cold environments.
  • Prepare a schedule: If possible, always try to schedule your outdoor work for the mildest temperatures. In some regions, you might have a slight warming during mid-day, so schedule any necessary outside work during the mildest time. Even a few degrees make a huge comfort and safety difference, so take advantage of that warmer time in your schedule.
  • Be prepared: You might have no alternative than to work in extreme cold. If you can’t delay a job until it warms up, then make certain you’re completely prepared. That includes having a plan to escape the cold if it overwhelms you and having the right equipment ready to do the job as quickly as possible.
  • Keep equipment serviced: You need to use the right equipment to ensure you’re safe when working in extreme cold. Your equipment needs to be properly serviced and maintained. Having your machinery fail because it’s not serviced and winter-ready could cause a serious safety breakdown.
  • Stop working: If you find cold conditions too extreme to work in, simply stop. No job is worth risking your safety or your workers’ well-being.

You can find other great tips for working in extreme cold from OSHA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS). The National Weather Service provides up-to-date information on current weather conditions across the nation as well as accurate forecasts. The NWS also provides first-class information on cold weather safety and how to protect from the cold.


How to Protect From the Cold

There’s a lot of common sense involved in protecting from the cold. As humans, we’re remarkably adaptable to cold weather climates. Many societies thrive in the cold, and they’ve made some remarkable methods of shielding themselves from extremely low temperatures.

Take the igloo, for example. It’s an ingenious structure built from snow that serves as a highly effective windbreak as well as an insulated environment. People nicely survive inside an ice-formed dome, and they report igloos to be downright toasty.

Your first priority for working in extreme cold is providing shelter. That involves stopping wind chill and raising the temperature if you can. You should always bring your cold-weather work inside rather than unnecessarily suffering it out in the elements.

If you have no option other than to work in extreme cold, then you have to take whatever precautions you have available. That should involve controlling the temperature as much as possible. It also involves isolating yourself and others from the heat-robbing cold.

To effectively protect from the cold, it’s important to understand how physics applies to heat transfer — a science called thermodynamics. These are the three forms of thermodynamic heat transfer:

  • Convection: This is the transfer of heat within a substance. Take a pot of water, for instance. As you heat water on a stove, the molecules move at an increasing rate. This produces energy and the water in the pot gets hotter.
  • Conduction: This is direct heat transfer from one object to another. Your stove element or burner transfers heat by conduction to the pot which, in turn, causes convection within the water. If you remove the pot from your hot stove, it begins to cool from a lack of conductive energy.
  • Radiation: This is electromagnetic energy transfer through space and air. When you place your hands near the boiling pot on your stove, you instantly feel the heat radiating from the hot pot and water combination. The closer you put your hands, the warmer the temperature seems and vice versa.

Thermodynamic heat transfer happens whether you work in the heat or the cold. You can seriously suffer from heat stress just like you can succumb to cold stress. It’s your responsibility to protect yourself and others from thermodynamic heat transfer when you’re working in extreme cold.

Your body works with all three heat transfer forms. You experience convection when your system converts food into energy. You experience conduction when your body warms your clothes. And you experience radiation when your clothed body gives off your hard-earned heat to the frigidly cold air.

Heat always transfers from hot to cold. Nature insists that you’ll always experience thermodynamic heat exchange. It can be a killer in the cold unless you protect yourself from heat loss.

To work with nature instead of against it, you need to keep your internal body temperature at its healthy rate of 98.6F. You protect that by feeding it food and converting it to heat through convection and conduction. You then have to protect your body from radiation heat loss by insulating it with the right clothing.

Other heat loss prevention techniques also play into your safety and comfort. After feeding and insulating yourself, you have to prevent that heat-stealing force called wind chill. By blocking moving air from inside and out, you’ll achieve the best protection from the cold.

Cold Weather Work Regulations

Believe it or not, OSHA does not have any specific regulations concerning cold weather limits or laws regarding working in cold temperatures. They don’t have an extreme cold conditions standard. The overriding clause in OSHA governing workplace hazards is the OSH Act of 1970 where section 5 states employer duties. This reference to OSHA cold temperature limits says:

“Each employer shall furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to their employees.”

There’s no question that exposing unprotected works to extreme cold could cause serious physical harm or death. No one would argue that. To help both employees and employers function in extreme cold conditions, OSHA provides helpful information about the dangers of working in cold weather and how to minimize risk.


The Dangers of Working in Cold Weather

Your danger level increases with each temperature degree drop. You are in far more danger of injury or death when working in 20 below temperatures than right at the freezing level. Extend that cold temperature to 40 below, and you could be in serious peril in a very short time.

There are three main cold-weather injuries that workers can suffer. They range from mild to severe and result from combinations of factors. According to OSHA’s guide to cold stress, workers can experience these effects:

  • Immersion or trench foot: This is a non-freezing injury caused by lengthy exposure to cold and wet conditions. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Keeping your feet dry is a first step in protecting yourself from the cold.
  • Frostbite: This is a freezing injury to tissues and skin. If severe, frostbitten areas may not naturally heal and may need an amputation. Keeping tissues warm is the only defense against frostbite damage.
  • Hypothermia: This is a serious and life-threatening hazard. Hypothermia is a body-reaction state to an internal temperature falling below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The only effective hypothermia treatment is to get the victim into a warm place and raise their core temperature to normal.

Trenchfoot, frostbite and hypothermia are dangerous forms of cold stress. Each condition can have a long-lasting effect on you or your workers. For a safe and healthy workplace where you’re exposed to extreme cold, there are some simple steps you can do to prevent cold stress injuries.


Preventing Cold Stress

Without question, the most effective way to prevent cold stress injuries is to remove the threat. Without cold temperatures, there is no risk. Unfortunately, completely removing the threat may not be optional if your livelihood involves working in extreme cold. If so, you have to protect yourself and others from suffering heat loss.

When you’re making a plan to safely work in extreme cold, always consider the physics behind heat loss. Heat always moves to cold. If you can’t raise the ambient temperature, then you have to block body heat from escaping to avoid cold stress. Here are your best ways of preventing cold stress from happening:

  • Keep your body’s core temperature normal through food and hydration.
  • Insulate your body with proper clothing layers.
  • Keep yourself dry at all times.
  • Take rest periods but keep slightly moving.
  • Use PPE designed for cold-weather operation.
  • Devise a break to stop moving air and prevent wind chill.
  • Keep an emergency heat source close by.
  • Reduce your exposed working time as much as possible.
  • Don’t work alone if you can “buddy” with someone.
  • Educate yourself on cold stress and prevention measures.
  • Make sure your working equipment is in top shape and failsafe.

Making sure your outdoor working equipment is dependable and won’t break down under the harshest conditions is a smart way to mitigate cold stress. Many workers suffer cold-related injury because their equipment failed. The equipment couldn’t run to provide a heat source, and workers were forced to fix it in extreme cold.

Contact The Cat® Rental Store for Cold Weather Equipment Renting

Your chance of cold weather failure is significantly reduced when you rent equipment from The Cat® Rental Store. With over 1,300 equipment rental locations across North America, we can provide extreme cold solutions in frigid environments you’ll find in Alaska, Canada and the northern central states.

Our selection of Cat machinery includes cold-weather performers like graders, loaders and skid steers. We rent excavators that work in the winter as well as power generators that start in the coldest of times and produce life-saving heat. At The Cat Rental Store, we also offer work tool attachments that will plow snow and blow it away.

Contact The Cat Rental Store today for your extreme cold-weather options. Call us at 1-800-RENT-CAT or stop by one of our convenient locations near you.

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