Are your aches and pains worse when it’s cold outside? Chilly temperatures can be especially punishing for workers who have arthritis or other painful conditions. A study involving nearly 135,000 construction workers found that working in cold environments increased their risk for developing back and neck pain.
“From the Canadian north to the tropical heat of the Hawaiian Islands, Laborers’ work in every climate and under all weather conditions. That is why the research and programs developed by the LHSFNA are so important. We advise and train our members to prepare themselves to work safely and productively in any environment. Understanding the factors that can lead to injury and chronic conditions are an important preventative measure that not only helps our members but also results in less time out and turnover for our contractors,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni.
Relying on medication may seem like an answer to address pain that worsens when temperatures drop, but that can present its own problems and there are other measures you should try first. Cold weather can affect us both externally and internally. The best practices described below can help reduce pain both on and off the job.
How the Body Responds to Cold
When the body is exposed to cold temperatures, blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow first to the skin and then to the fingers, hands and feet. These are the areas of the body that tend to feel the effects of exposure to cold first. Constricting blood flow in cold weather is how the body works to maintain its internal core temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit (about 35°C) – hypothermia starts to set in if the body drops below it. However, restricted blood flow can also cause muscle spasms and stiff joints. It can also increase blood pressure, forcing the heart to work harder. This can be dangerous for people who have pre-existing conditions like heart disease. This is why it’s not unusual for people with heart disease to suffer chest pain or discomfort when exposed to cold weather.
Although it may not feel like it, cold, dry air is heavier and denser than hot, humid air. Some people who find their pain increases when it’s cold outside may be sensitive to barometric pressure. When barometric pressure is low, air tends to be heavy and dense, creating a change in pressure between the air outside and the air inside the body. This is also why some people experience ear pain when flying; the air outside the plane is colder and drier than the air inside the plane, creating an imbalance in pressure that can be especially noticeable during takeoff and landing.
What Can You Do?
You can’t stop the cold weather, but you can control some of its effects and prepare for it. Keeping warm, stretching and following other best practices can help reduce the aches and pains that cold weather brings.
- Dress in layers and wear a hat. Choose the warmest gloves you can find that still allow you to handle tools safely.
- Get out of the cold at the first signs of hypothermia.
- Keep blood flowing to your hands and feet by doing simple exercises like making a fist for a few seconds or doing heel-toe raises.
- At night, use extra blankets or an electric blanket on your bed to help keep your muscles from tightening.
- Keep your home as warm as you can. Run your car for a few minutes to preheat it before you drive.
- Take a few minutes to stretch before you go to work. Click here for examples of simple stretching exercises.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking water throughout the day helps lubricate the joints.
- Use a humidifier at home. Heat from the furnace removes moisture from the air, which can affect your joints. A humidifier can return some of that moisture.
What Can Employers Do?
Educate workers about the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and other cold stress situations. Encourage employees to watch out for each other and make sure they are comfortable about reporting cold stress-related issues. Encourage employees to warm up before starting their shift. This can be done by making stretching exercises part of the daily safety briefing. Encourage employees to speak up if they are experiencing pain on the job or feel they can’t perform a task without aggravating a previous injury or other condition.
Once workers are warmed up, employers can do the following to help minimize the effects of cold stress:
- Make use of radiant heaters, indoor heated rest areas or barriers to protect workers from the wind.
- Make sure all workers are trained on how to recognize and treat the symptoms of cold stress
- Schedule work so that workers always have a buddy. It can be easier to recognize symptoms of cold stress in someone else than in yourself.
- Acclimate new employees to cold temperatures.
Keep Employees Safe with Help from the LHSFNA
The LHSFNA has several publications that can help employees stay safe when temperatures drop. These include the Cold Stress in Construction Health Alert and our Preventing Cold Stress In Construction pamphlet.
To order these or other publications, go to www.lhsfna.org and click on Publications.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]