Extreme-Cold Safety: Excessive Heat Loss Can Be Life Threatening


Working in a cold environment is not only uncomfortable but can sometimes be life-threatening. The body must maintain an internal temperature of about 98.6°F (37°C) to work properly. A couple of degrees above or below this and the body begins to have problems. Brain function decreases and organs begin to malfunction. The body's ability to create and retain heat must not exceed the heat that is being lost. The body loses heat via radiation (caused by the temperature difference with the environment), conduction (when we touch a cold object), convection (via surrounding air as it comes in contact with the body), and evaporation (via sweating).

If body temperature drops it is referred to as hypothermia. This condition can affect anyone working outdoors in cold weather (e.g. construction or road workers, emergency response workers, fishermen, hunters, etc), but also indoor workers if the environment is cold (e.g. refrigerated warehouses). Factors that might make someone more susceptible include; age, blood circulation diseases, previous hypothermia, fatigue, certain medications, and a low level of body fat.

Warning Signs Of Hypothermia

  • Shivering.
  • Feeling cold.
  • Becoming disoriented.
  • Pale or bluish skin, especially the lips.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Loss of muscle control.
  • Slow pulse and breathing rates.
  • Unconsciousness.


If the body temperature remains normal, but certain body parts, such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, begin to get very cold, then we call this frostbite. This usually happens if a body part is exposed to the cold environment, or if it gets wet.

Warning Signs Of Frostbite

  • Body part becomes numb and stiff.
  • Color becomes pale, bluish, or yellowish.
  • The tissue swells.
  • It becomes painful, but then all feeling disappears.

Treatment For Hypothermia And Frostbite

  • Get the person into a warm area quickly.
  • Remove wet clothing and put on dry clothing.
  • Put near a heat source, e.g. a fire place, but do not use heat directly.
  • Give warm fluids to drink, e.g. coffee, hot chocolate.
  • Do not give alcohol, it will make things worse.
  • Do not use heat directly on a body part.
  • Do not rub.
  • If there is a chance it will refreeze, do not warm the body part, seek help immediately.
  • If condition does not improve seek medical help.

Cold Safety Precautions

  • Avoid working in severely cold environments.
  • Keep all body parts covered with high quality clothing (gloves/mitts, scarfs, ear muffs, hats, etc).
  • Wear layers of clothing. Layers keep you warmer, plus you can also remove layers if you become warm.
  • Avoid sweating as this can freeze when the activity stops.
  • Keep well hydrated and eat snacks.
  • If warning signs appear get to a warmer area immediately.
  • Know the warning signs of hypothermia and frost bite and have a plan in place of what to do during an emergency (e.g. make sure there is adequate shelter near by).
  • Never work alone.
  • Beware of the wind, as it can make the environment much colder (windchill).
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