During emergency response activities or recovery operations, workers may be required to work in cold environments, and sometimes for extended periods. Cold stress is a common problem encountered in these types of situations. The following frequently asked questions will help workers understand what cold stress is, how it may affect their health and safety, and how it can be prevented.
How cold is too cold?
When the body is unable to warm itself, cold related stress may result. This may include tissue damage and possibly death. Four factors contribute to cold stress: cold air temperatures, high velocity air movement, dampness of the air, and contact with cold water or surfaces. A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. Cold air, water, and snow all draw heat from the body. Wind chill is the combination of air temperature and wind speed. For example, when the air temperature is 40°F, and the wind speed is 35 mph, your exposed skin receives conditions equivalent to the air temperature being 11° F. While it is obvious that below freezing conditions combined with inadequate clothing could bring about cold stress, it is also important to understand that it can also be brought about by temperatures in the 50's coupled with some rain and wind.
How does the body react to cold conditions?
When in a cold environment, most of your body's energy is used to keep your internal temperature warm. Over time, your body will begin to shift blood flow from your extremities (hands, feet, arms, and legs) and outer skin to the core (chest and abdomen). This allows exposed skin and the extremities to cool rapidly and increases the risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Combine this with cold water, and trench foot may also be a problem.
What are the most common cold induced problems?
Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Trench Foot.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia which means "low heat", is a potentially serious health condition. This occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. When the core body temperature drops below the normal 98.6° F to around 95° F, the onset of symptoms normally begins. The person may begin to shiver and stomp their feet in order to generate heat. Workers may lose coordination, have slurred speech, and fumble with items in the hand. The skin will likely be pale and cold. As the body temperature continues to fall these symptoms will worsen and shivering will stop. Workers may be unable to walk or stand. Once the body temperature falls to around 85° F severe hypothermia will develop and the person may become unconscious, and at 78°, the person could die.
Anyone working in a cold environment may be at risk for cold stress. However, older people may be at more risk than younger adults, since older people are not able to generate heat as quickly. Certain medications may prevent the body from generating heat normally. These include anti-depressants, sedatives, tranquilizers andothers.
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