Despite relatively mild temperatures in many parts of the country early this winter, frozen precipitation and low temperatures are still a possibility for some time ahead – and are already hitting us. In a timely email post on “From the Director’s Desk”, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Director Dr. John Howard emphasized awareness of the potential for cold stress for anyone working outdoors.

"Don't assume there is no need to prepare for working safely in the cold this year, because of the moderate temperatures in much of the country so far,” Howard wrote. “According to the National Weather Service, the long-range weather forecast predicts chillier temperatures than average in January and February in the Southern Plains and the Southeast. Cold weather can bring on health emergencies for people who may be susceptible as a result of their working environment, such as those who work outdoors or in an area that is poorly insulated or without heat."

When exposed to cold temperatures, the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body's stored energy, according to the resource-packed NIOSH page on the subject of cold stress. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it - (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress/).

In his post, Howard discussed the threat of cold stress this season: "What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, near-freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. Whenever temperatures drop decidedly below normal and as wind speed increases, heat can more rapidly leave your body, leading to cold-related injuries and illnesses." This includes hypothermia, cold water immersion, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains.

He offered the following tips for to reduce the risk of cold-related health problems at work:

For employers:
-Schedule maintenance and repair jobs in cold areas for warmer months.
-Schedule cold jobs for the warmest part of the day.
-Reduce the physical demands of workers.
-Use relief workers or assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs.
-Provide warm liquids to workers.
-Provide warm areas for use during break periods.
-Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress.
-Provide cold stress training.

For workers:
-Wear appropriate clothing.
-Wear several layers of loose clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
-Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.
-Choose clothing that won't restrict movement, which could lead to a hazardous situation.
-Make sure to protect the ears, face, hands, and feet in extremely cold weather.
-Boots should be waterproof and insulated.
-Wear a hat; it will keep your whole body warmer.
-Move into warm locations during work breaks. Limit the amount of time outside on extremely cold days.
-Carry cold-weather gear, such as extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, and blankets; a change of clothes; and a thermos of hot liquid.
-Include a thermometer and chemical hot packs in your first aid kit.
-Avoid touching cold metal surfaces with bare skin.
-Monitor your physical condition and that of your co-workers.