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What Is Cold Stress? Workforce Symptoms And Treatments

Anyone working in a cold environment is at risk of cold stress. In several industries, workers are required to work outdoors in cold environments for extended periods of time and the consequences of spending too much time working in the cold can be fatal.

Cold stress is just the beginning of the issues that could follow, but it is preventable if workers are taking the relevant steps in protecting themselves when working out in cold temperatures.

But cold stress is not just an outdoor health and safety risk - workers in cold stores, refridgerated warehouses, even supermarket workers in the fridge aisle can suffer from stresses caused by the cold.

However, not everyone is aware of the condition, so what is cold stress?

Workforce Cold Stress symptoms and treatments.

When a worker is used to working in cold conditions, it might be difficult to tell when they are on the verge of this condition, or they might already have it and will not be aware of what could follow.

So, it is important to be aware of the changes in your body, and the relevant steps you should take if you or somebody you know is at risk.

We will explore what the condition is, what the symptoms are, who is at the most risk, along with the treatments available for those already suffering, and how it can be prevented in the first instance.

What is Cold Stress?

Cold stress is a very serious condition that occurs when the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature. The results can be serious, especially since people that work in cold environments may develop other cold-related illnesses and injuries resulting in permanent tissue damage, or even death.

Cold environments are defined as work conditions with low temperatures (below 10℃/50℉), high wind speed (over 40MPH), humidity, contact with cold surfaces or water and inadequate clothing.

When someone is working in a cold environment, the conditions force the body to work much harder to maintain its temperature as the cold atmosphere draws heat from the body. While it is clear that working in below freezing temperatures combined with inadequate clothing puts you at risk, it is easy to overlook all the factors mentioned above that define a cold environment can increase your risk.

This combination of factors is why the condition can be brought about by even moderate temperatures, as working in the rain with a high wind speed, but not in freezing temperatures, can still cause serious harm.


What are the symptoms?

It is important to understand that cold stress is not the final condition from working in a cold environment for a lengthy period of time. It leads to much more serious conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite.


Hypothermia results when the body temperature drops too low. If this occurs, then there would be numerous symptoms to look out for.

These include:

  • being fatigued
  • excessive shivering
  • loss of coordination
  • feeling confused or disoriented

In the later stages where the symptoms persist and the person affected does not receive any treatment quickly, the skin could then also turn blue, pupils will be dilated, they will have a slow pulse, they may become unconscious, have slower breathing, and go into a coma.


At the more extreme end of the spectrum, frostbite can occur.

Frostbite occurs when the skin reaches minus one degrees Centigrade and the body reduces blood flow to the hands and feet to maintain its core temperature. In most cases, workers get frostbite from handling frozen foods, metal, or when they are in cold and wet conditions.

It often affects the nose, ears, finger, and toes and the symptoms gradually increase the longer the person is exposed to the condition. In the most severe cases, body tissue is so severely damaged that amputation is the only solution.

The symptoms to look out for include early warning signs of:

  • Pins and needles
  • Numbness
  • Cold, white skin which can turn blue and blotchy when the condition develops.
  • The affected areas may begin to ache and thick black scabs begin to form on the skin as it thaws.

These conditions can be prevented if the symptoms are spotted at an early stage, or measures are put in place for workers to remain safe when they have no choice but to work in cold conditions.

Who is at risk?

The fact is, anyone working in a cold environment may be at risk, especially those that are working outdoors for extended periods. For example, snow and ice clean up crews will be out in the early hours to clear up the roads to make them safe for the public.

Sanitation workers are at risk because they will be out in a cold environment for an extended period of time.

Police officers and emergency services such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians will be working in the cold when responding to emergencies.

Construction workers might be spending a long time working in cold, wet or windy conditions. If they are dealing with metal as part of their job, they are only increasing their risk of developing the cold-induced condition as it can be encountered in these types of work environment.

However, certain individuals can be more prone to suffer from the condition than others because they might have a pre-existing condition, such as diabetes, hypertension or a cardiovascular disease.

Those that are on certain medication are also more likely to suffer, and are advised to check with their doctor, nurse or pharmacy to see if any medicines they take might affect them from working in cold environments. While being older or in poor physical condition with an unbalanced diet also puts you at a much greater risk.

What are the treatments?

Luckily, there are measures you can take to protect yourself and your workers from developing the condition, and how to stay safe when working outdoors in a cold environment with high speed winds.

To begin with, working practices should be put into place for everyone on site. It should be enforced that everyone frequently drinks warm liquids, but avoids caffeine and alcohol as it is easy to become dehydrated in cold weather.

The work schedule can also be taken into account. If possible, heavy work should be scheduled during the warmer parts of the day, while regular breaks in the heat should be enforced so that everyone has periods throughout the day in warm, dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.

A buddy system is also beneficial, as working in pairs allows two workers to keep an eye on each other and look out for the symptoms, which means regular training should also be enforced so workers have knowledge about cold-induced injuries and illnesses, as victims of hypothermia, for example, will not be able to recognise their own symptoms.

Protective Clothing for Cold Stresses

Wearing protective clothing is the most important way to stay safe. The type of fabric also makes a big difference. For example, cotton loses its insulation when it becomes wet whereas wool retains its insulative qualities even when wet, so the following are recommendations of what to wear when working in cold environments:

Wear at least three layers of clothing:-

  • Wear an outer layer to break the wind and allow some ventilation.
  • A middle layer of wool or fleece to absorb sweat and provide insulation, even when it gets wet.
  • An inner layer of synthetic weave to allow ventilation.

It is important to wear a hat and head coverings too, as up to 40% of body heat is lost when the head is left exposed, especially in a cold environment.

Wear insulated boots that are sized appropriately, as tight-fitted footwear restricts blood flow, while too many socks can also do the same. Instead, pick a pair of thermally insulated socks instead as it will keep your feet warm and not lose its insulation either.

Wear warm, insulated gloves in cold working conditions as well, and make sure they are sized appropriately, especially when contacting metallic surfaces and tool handles.

If you do get hot while working, you can unzip your jacket but make sure you keep your hat and gloves on. The fact that you would be wearing three layers of clothing means unzipping your jacket will not affect you. Ensure all of the clothing you are wearing is fitted appropriately and is not too tight, as this can restrict blood flow while loose clothing allows much better ventilation.

Having a change of dry clothing available is also beneficial, just in case the clothes you are working in become wet.

Are you PPE compliant for your outdoor workers?