Cold weather can create serious hazards for any worker who spends time outdoors. Snow, ice, and cold temperatures can not only increase the risks of workplace accidents but may place workers in danger of experiencing cold-related injuries like hypothermia or frostbite.
At Handler, Henning & Rosenberg LLC, our Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorneys have been helping people across the commonwealth for nearly 100 years, protecting their rights after serious on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Here, we’ll consider the types of winter work injuries to watch for in 2021, what can be done to prevent these, and what to do if you’ve been injured.
Types of Workers at Risk for Cold Weather-Related Injuries
According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were more than 20,000 work injuries related to snow and ice in 2017 alone.
The following people are most vulnerable to winter work injuries:
- Snow cleanup crews
- Sanitation workers
- Police officers
- Emergency medical technicians
- Construction workers
- Truck drivers
- Agriculture workers
- Recreational workers
Injuries Caused by Cold Weather
Exposure to cold temperatures can cause serious injuries and even death in extreme cases. Extreme cold and near-freezing temperatures, particularly when combined with wind chill and snow, can cause the body to quickly lose heat. Employers need to be vigilant about protecting workers from exposure by providing proper training and equipment. They must also recognize when temperatures are too low to allow for outdoor activities.
Cold weather can cause the following occupational injuries:
- Hypothermia: When the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced, its overall temperature will drop. Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops from normal (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to below 95 degrees. The heart, nervous system, and other organs cannot function normally when the body temperature drops too low. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart failure, respiratory system failure, and death.
- Frostbite: This injury happens when the skin and underlying tissues are frozen. Minor cases of frostbite, or frostnip, will cause no permanent damage. Severe cases will require amputation, as frostbite can essentially kill the skin, muscle, bone, and other tissue.
- Trench Foot: Also called immersion foot, trench foot occurs when the feet are exposed to water and cold temperatures for a long period of time. Because wet feet can lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet, trench foot can happen at temperatures as high as 60 degrees. Skin and underlying tissue will begin to die as the body tries to prevent heat loss by shutting down circulation in the feet.
How Winter Weather Affects Work Safety
Cold weather affects workplace safety by impacting working conditions and environments. Snow and ice, for example, can increase the risk of a slip and fall accident. Winter weather can also make trucking accidents and other traffic collisions more likely. Working from heights after a snowfall can be more dangerous, as the snow may hide skylights or electrical hazards, not to mention making any surface more slippery.
They cannot change the weather, but employers can take measures to protect workers from the cold and hazards presented by snow and ice. This may include removing snow and ice from walking surfaces, putting down ice melt as soon as possible after a storm, limiting the amount of time workers spend outdoors, and monitoring weather conditions. Employers should not force workers to go outside when conditions are too dangerous. Workers should also be provided with appropriate cold-weather gear and accessories, including proper footwear to reduce the chances of a slip and fall accident.
Cold Stress: How Cold Is Too Cold?
The term cold stress can be used to describe conditions that occur when the body is exposed to low temperatures. First, the temperature of the skin lowers, and then the internal body temperature lowers as well. This can cause frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia. When cold stress is severe enough, it can cause permanent injury or even death.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “What constitutes extreme cold and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered ‘extreme cold.’”
Cold stress can occur in any situation where a worker is exposed to cool or cold temperatures, with an added risk of injury if the worker is not dressed properly, has a preexisting condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or is exhausted. Wet weather conditions and wind will also increase the likelihood of cold stress.
Preventing Winter Work Injuries
OSHA does not have set standards related to working in cold weather, but employers still “have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, including cold stress,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Employers can prevent winter work injuries by:
- Training workers on preventing and recognizing cold stress, as well as administering first aid when cold weather-related injuries occur.
- Providing engineering controls, which are designed to protect workers from hazards. In winter weather, this might include heaters or barriers that protect workers from the wind.
- Implementing safety measures to protect workers, such as offering warm drinks and frequent breaks. Employees can also work in pairs to monitor one another for signs of cold stress.
- Dressing workers properly, including weather-appropriate footwear, multiple layers of warm clothing, a hat or hood to keep the head warm, gloves, and a face mask. All of this will add extra protection against the cold.
- Monitoring the weather. When weather conditions become too dangerous, employers should pull workers from outside tasks until conditions improve. Work that must be done outside should be saved for the warmest part of the day.
Contact a Pennsylvania Work Injury Lawyer
If you believe it is too cold to work safely, or if you notice the signs of cold stress in yourself or another worker, be sure to inform your employer immediately. Put your safety first. If your employer tries to force you to work in cold weather or threatens to fire or demote you for reporting a safety violation, you may be able to take legal action. The same applies to any threats or acts of retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim. You have the right to seek benefits for any winter work injury or illness without fear that you will be fired or penalized. An attorney can see to it that your case is properly filed and your rights protected.
For more information on winter work injuries in 2021 and how our Pennsylvania workers’ comp lawyers can help you, call (888) 498-3023 or contact our firm online. Your consultation is free!