Winter is coming. Actually, in Alberta, winter is here. While winter might not bring us any White Walkers, it does bring freezing temperatures and the possibility of hypothermia, which can be fatal. It's essential that you know how to protect your health when working in winter conditions. In this Toolbox Talk, I'll outline some of the measures you can take to keep yourself safe, as presented by Worksafe BC.
What causes cold stress?
Cold stress is caused by the following conditions:
- Cold environments
- Wind, which pulls heat from the body
- Wet clothing
- Cold water immersion
- Fatigue, which makes it more difficult for the body to create heat.
The stages of hypothermia
Cold stress which ends in hypothermia is a gradual process. Because symptoms come on slowly, workers might not realize they are in danger until it's too late. Workers need to know that feeling cold is the first sign to pay attention to. When we feel cold, it means our bodies are likely losing heat faster than our bodies are making it.
Here are the 3 stages of hypothermia and the accompanying symptoms:
1. Mild Hypothermia:
- Poor judgment or confusion
2. Moderate Hypothermia:
- Violent shivering
- Inability to think or pay attention
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Slurred speech
- Poor body coordination
3. Severe Hypothermia
- Loss of consciousness
- Little or no breathing
- Weak, irregular or no pulse
With severe hypothermia, vital organs and body systems begin to shut down.
How to manage the risk of cold stress
Since rope access work often takes place outdoors, removing the source of the cold (winter) isn't really an option. However, there are measures that can be taken to minimize the risk of cold stress, such as the following:
- Reschedule outdoor work when severe winter conditions are present.
- Designate heated warming sites where possible.
- Use tools that can be operated without it being necessary to remove gloves.
- Provide awareness training for staff on the signs of hypothermia
- Create an exposure plan
- Create a work rotation to decrease cold exposure
- Pace work so that workers don't exert themselves to the point of heavy sweating
- Consider the use of chemical heating pads under clothing
- Ensure the proper clothing is used in frigid temperatures:
- warm head covering
- layers of clothing
- proper gloves and footwear for keeping hands and feet warm and dry
- waterproof clothing in wet conditions
- Drink plenty of fluids and eat high energy snacks like raisins and nuts
It's important to address hypothermia in the early stages. In conditions where hypothermia is a possibility, always monitor yourself and your co-workers for signs of cold stress.
What to do if someone has hypothermia
If someone on your team is showing signs of hypothermia, follow these guidelines:
- Handle the victim gently. Rough handling of victims with severe hypothermia can cause death.
- Remove the victim from the cold environment and seek medical assistance
- Hot liquids can be given if the victim is alert and not showing signs of confusion. Victims with severe hypothermia should not be given anything orally as there is a high risk of vomiting.
- Do not allow the victim to move around, as this will encourage further heat loss.
- A victim may still be alive, even if there's no pulse or heartbeat. Initiate CPR only if there is no pulse after a full one minute assessment.
- Remove damp clothing, replace with warm, dry clothing and wrap the victim in warm blankets. Make sure their head is covered and something warm and dry is beneath them
- Do not suppress shivering. It's the most effective way for the body to generate heat.
- Do not massage the extremities or trunk
- Do not place the victim in a warm bath or shower
For more detailed information, please refer to this brochure by Worksafe BC.
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