Everyone knows that heat and cold can kill.  But for Laborers who work outdoors, it’s the days between steamy summer and frigid winter that can be especially treacherous.

Autumn weather is an invitation for cold stress and related, serious health conditions like hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot. Minus the temperature extremes of summer and winter, which serve as reminders to dress appropriately, take rest breaks and limit exposure to the elements, autumn creates a false sense of security about weather. Such complacency can come with a price as cold stress can affect anyone. However, the outdoor nature of many construction jobs leaves many Laborers particularly vulnerable. Know the symptoms of cold stress ailments and be prepared to treat them. Better yet, take steps to avoid cold stress altogether.


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.

Hypothermia’s symptoms are gradual and, since most cases occur when the temperature ranges from 30º F to 50º F, the condition can sneak up on victims unaware of the danger. Additionally, medications like anti-depressants, sedatives, tranquilizers and cardiovascular drugs can sometimes make people more susceptible to hypothermia.

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, 911 should be called for emergency medical help.


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 surgical removal of damaged tissue and/or 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.

Trench foot

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

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 appropriate dress, all of these conditions can be avoided.

What to wear:

  • At least three layers of clothing: 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
  • A hat – up to 50 percent of body heat can be lost when the head is uncovered
  • 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 protection from rain or snow.


  • Days are getting shorter and darker. Wear high visibility caps, coats and vests.
  • Even in the fall or winter, always protect skin from the sun’s damaging rays. Always put on sunscreen.

Weather conditions do not have to be extreme to be dangerous. Autumn days can be both invigorating and hazardous. Dress appropriately and stay healthy.

Cold Stress in Construction, a health alert, and Cold Stress Education for Laborers, a 28-page instructor’s guide, provide additional information.  Both are available through the LHSFNA online Publications Catalogue.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]