The warm and wet Nebraska summer has gone, and as Omaha workers head toward the windy and freezing cold of the winter, it might be wise to learn about the hazards you will face. At risk are not only those with outdoor occupations like emergency responders, firefighters, utility and construction workers but also workers in cold storage facilities, meatpacking plants and others who work in refrigerated facilities. No specific safety regulations exist to protect you from cold exposure, so staying safe might mostly be on you.
Understanding what causes cold stress and learning to recognize telltale signs of the potential health impacts of exposure is the best place to start. If you and your co-workers keep an eye on each other, prompt action might save lives.
What causes cold stress?
Your normal internal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and if you are in a cold environment, your body will use as much energy as possible to prevent the core temperature in the chest and abdomen from dropping below 95 degrees. This means that blood circulation to extremities such as the outer skin, hands, arms, legs, feet, nose and ears become limited, making those areas vulnerable to tissue damage.
This condition is not life-threatening, but it is damaging over time. If you expose your skin to low temperatures between freezing and 60 degrees Fahrenheit repeatedly, permanent damage might occur to the small blood vessels in your skin. The following symptoms might indicate chilblains:
- Your fingers, toes, cheeks and ears will become red and itchy during each exposure.
- Blisters might form on your skin.
- In severe cases, inflammation and ulceration might occur.
When this happens, you should avoid scratching and heat the skin slowly.
Another name for this condition is immersion foot, which results from exposing your feet to cold, wet conditions over a prolonged period. This is how it happens:
- Constant wetness causes heat loss at a rapid rate, and to prevent that, your body will constrict the blood vessels in your feet.
- Without blood flow, oxygen starvation will cause toxic products to build up in the skin tissue.
- Numbness, swelling, blisters and redness will indicate trench foot.
Remove footwear, dry the feet and seek medical care immediately.
This happens when your skin and the underlying layers of tissue freeze. It is a severe threat, and to avoid amputations, you might want to look out for the following symptoms:
- Keep in mind that the colder it is, the quicker you can suffer frostbite.
- Frostbite typically affects the extremities like hands, arms, feet, legs, nose and ears.
- Your skin will first become red and then develop white or gray patches.
- Affected parts will become numb.
- Those areas may feel hard to the touch.
- When blisters appear, it is an indication of severity that might even lead to amputation.
Avoid heating the damaged areas before obtaining emergency medical care.
This is the most severe danger of exposure to cold work environments because it could cause death. When your body loses heat faster than it can replace it, and it drops below 95 degrees, you will become aware of the following:
- Initial symptoms of mild hypothermia will cause shivering.
- If the core temperature continues to fall, shivering might stop, but you may experience disorientation and confusion, and your coordination will fail. You might be unable to stand or walk.
- Your condition could become critical if your breathing and pulse become slow and your pupils dilated.
- Loss of consciousness and death could follow if you do not receive emergency medical care promptly.
If you should suffer any of these cold stress conditions at work, you will need prompt medical care. However, you need not be concerned about the costs of the treatment because you will likely be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. An attorney who has experience in dealing with the Nebraska workers' compensation system can help you with the navigation of a benefits claim, which will also provide a wage-replacement package.