Working outside in the winter can be a particular challenge. Frostbite, an injury to the skin caused by freezing, can happen when a body part isn’t properly covered and skin is exposed to freezing temperatures.
Those who work outside, including recreational workers, snow cleanup crews, construction workers, police officers and firefighters, and landscapers, are at particular risk.
- Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas, most commonly the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes.
- Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and severe cases can lead to amputation of affected body parts.
- As temperatures decrease and winds increase, so does the risk for frostbite. In severely frigid weather, it can happen in as little as 5 minutes.
- Exposed or poorly protected skin may get red or sore initially, a condition called frost nip. If this happens, find warm shelter quickly to avoid serious consequences.
If you work outside or spend time outdoors in cold conditions, you’re at risk for frostbite, but some people are at an even greater risk, including those who:
- Have medical conditions that affect their ability to feel or respond to cold, such as dehydration, excessive sweating, exhaustion, diabetes and poor blood flow in limbs
- Abuse alcohol or drugs
- Have a history of frostbite or cold injury
Signs of frostbite
Frostbite occurs in three stages. Be aware of:
- Skin that turns a pale yellow or white
- Skin that may itch, sting, burn, or feel like pins and needles.
In the next stage:
- Skin becomes hard
- It looks shiny or waxy
- When the skin thaws, blisters filled with fluid or blood will form
In the advanced, or most serious stage:
- Skin is very hard and cold to the touch
- Skin darkens quickly. It may look blue and then turn black
You may not realize you have frostbite because as it gets worse, you can’t feel the affected area. This is why it’s important to pay attention to skin color.
How to Help Prevent Frostbite:
According to OSHA, employers should:
- Monitor workers’ physical condition.
- Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas, to allow the body to warm up.
- Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
- Work in pairs.
- Provide warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with alcohol.
- Provide radiant heaters in work areas.
How to Prevent Frostbite by Layering Clothing Properly:
Frostbite can be prevented. When dressing, keep these cold-weather clothing tips in mind:
Layer your clothing, loosely. Choose loose layers that allow body heat to circulate. You should layer clothing as follows:
- The first layer, closest to your skin, should be made of a material that helps keep you dry.
- The second, to be worn over the first, should insulate, such as wool or fleece.
- The third should be worn on the outside and should be wind- and waterproof.
- Make sure to wear a hat that covers your head and ears. Get yourself a wool or fleece one with ear flaps to keep ears protected.
- Mittens are better than gloves. Mittens provide better protection. Or try a thin pair of glove liners made of a wicking material (such as polypropylene) under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens.
- Wear socks and sock liners that fit well, wick moisture and provide insulation. You might also try hand and foot warmers. Be sure the foot warmers don’t make your boots too tight, which can restrict blood flow, though. Feet are very vulnerable to frostbite. Wear warm, waterproof boots that cover your ankles.
And remember, wet clothing — either from snow or sweating — makes you more likely to get frostbite. Make sure to change out of wet clothing and into dry clothing as soon as possible.
How to Treat Frostbite and Hypothermia
According to OSHA:
- Move the worker to a warm, dry area.
- Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing.
- If medical help is more than 30 minutes away:
Give warm sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol), to help increase the body temperature. Never try to give a drink to an unconscious person.
Place warm bottles or hot packs in armpits, sides of chest, and groin. Call 911 for additional rewarming instructions.