What does it mean to dress for winter success? In the construction industry, the answer is warm, dry clothing. Failure to dress for the elements invites an assortment of health conditions related to cold stress including hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.

Temperature, moisture and wind contribute to cold stress, but that does not mean it must be freezing outside for there to be cold stress conditions. Weather is deceiving. Even on a “balmy” 50º F day, care must be taken.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it is replaced. Symptoms – shivering, loss of coordination, slurred speech and pale, cold skin – begin to appear when body temperature drops from the normal 98.6º F to 95º F. Death usually results when body temperature falls below 80º F.

In cases of mild hypothermia, the victim should be moved to a warm area, covered with dry clothes and blankets and given a warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated drink.

For severe cases, while all of the above measures are implemented, a 911 call for emergency medical help is vital as well.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite occurs when the skin actually freezes and loses water. The affected part of the body – the face, feet and hands are particularly susceptible – will be cold with stinging, tingling, aching and numbness. Frostbitten skin may turn red, purple or white and may blister. Severe cases may require amputation.

Frostbite is treated by moving the person to a warm location and wrapping, not rubbing, the frostbitten area in a soft cloth. The affected area should be immersed in warm water and a call made for medical assistance.

What is trench foot?

Trench foot occurs when feet are cold and wet for long periods of time. Tingling, itching, burning and blisters are all symptoms.

Trench foot is treated by soaking feet in warm water and then wrapping them in dry cloth bandages. The person should be given a warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated drink.

With planning, cold stress can be avoided.  Appropriate clothing is a must.

  • Wear at least three layers: an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to wick moisture away from the body; a middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation; and an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Wear a hat. Up to 40 percent of body heat can be lost when the head is uncovered.
  • Wear insulated footwear.
  • Keep a change of dry clothing available.
  • With the exception of the wicking layer, do not wear tight clothing. Loose clothing allows better ventilation of heat away from the body.
  • Do not underestimate the wetting effects of perspiration. Oftentimes, wicking and venting of the body’s sweat and heat are more important than protecting from rain or snow.
  • Winter days are often shorter and darker. Wear high visibility caps, coats and vests.

Diet is also important. Eat high carbohydrate foods – pasta is a good choice – to maintain energy reserves. Drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated, but stay away from alcoholic and caffeinated beverages. They dilate the blood vessels in skin and contribute to heat loss.

Also, be sure to schedule breaks away from the winter elements and always be on the lookout for signs of cold stress.

The LHSFNA health alert, Cold Stress In Construction, and the Fund’s Temperature Extremes manual, both of which can be ordered online at the LHSFNA website, offer tips for managing cold stress.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]