For most Laborers, this time of year often means dressing with cooler temperatures in mind. Clothing that is insulated, ventilated and worn in layers helps protect against cold stress and related, serious conditions like hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.

Cold Stress

When the body is unable to keep itself warm, cold stress can result. Cold weather, wind-chill, dampness and contact with cold surfaces like machinery and metal framing are factors. It need not be freezing for cold stress to be a risk. Fifty-degree temperatures accompanied with wind and rain are treacherous. Cold stress can result in tissue damage and, in extreme cases, death.


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

Hypothermia sneaks up on its victims. Its symptoms are gradual and usually occur within ambient temperature ranges of 30º F to 50º F. Additionally, medications like anti-depressants, sedatives, tranquilizers and cardiovascular drugs can make people more susceptible.

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 face, feet and hands are particularly susceptible. Affected parts will be cold and accompanied with stinging, tingling, aching and numbness. Skin may turn red, purple or white and may blister. Severe cases of frostbite 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. Immerse the affected area in warm water and call for medical assistance.

Trench foot

Trench foot occurs when feet are cold and wet for an extended period, such as during a work shift. Tingling, itching, burning and blisters are 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 appropriate dress and planning, risk for all of these conditions can be minimized.

What Laborers should do:

  • 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.
  • Wear a hat. Up to 40 percent of body heat can be lost when the head is uncovered.
  • Wear insulated gloves and footwear.
  • Keep a change of dry clothing on hand.
  • With the exception of the wicking layer, wear loose clothing for better ventilation.
  • Wear high visibility caps, coats and vests. Darkness comes earlier during winter.
  • Wear sunscreen and lip balm that contains sunscreen. Sunlight is damaging regardless of the season.

Employers can help:

  • Use heaters whenever possible to control temperatures.
  • Schedule windbreaks and more breaks in general.
  • Rotate workers so that no one is exposed too long.
  • Schedule work at warmest times whenever possible.
  • Establish a buddy system and train Laborers so that they know the signs of cold stress and how to treat it.
  • Keep first aid supplies and equipment available.

Cold Stress in Construction, a health alert, and Cold Stress Education for Laborers, a  28-page instructor’s guide, provide additional information for what can be done to protect against cold stress. Both are available through the LHSFNA’s online Publications Catalogue.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]