It’s really important to use your wits and not just your brawn when you head out the door in the dead of winter for another day of work in freezing conditions.
Whether you are delivering the mail, working construction or have another job that requires you to be outside during winter for long periods, you’re putting your body at risk. Even if you’re simply clearing snow in freezing temperatures for a few hours over the weekend, it’s important to take safety precautions that will protect your health.
Anyone working outside in winter should have a basic understanding of symptoms of cold stress. Acting quickly to keep these symptoms from progressing can prevent lasting harm and might even save your life.
Follow these three safety tips when working outside this winter:
1. Recognize the symptoms of cold stress
The most common cold-related illnesses and injuries are hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below 95°F. It’s so easy to get caught up in the job at hand that the signs and symptoms of hypothermia creep up unnoticed. It starts with shivering, which will eventually stop as hypothermia progresses. In later stages of hypothermia, the person will become confused and disoriented, their pupils will become dilated, and their breathing and pulse will slow. They could die if they don’t receive immediate medical attention. Because the process itself so dulls your ability to make good judgments, hypothermia is very scary.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freezes. The skin will be red with white or grey patches, the affected body part will feel numb and hard, and blisters may appear in extreme cases. Preventing frostbite is key. Wear good gloves; it’s silly to “tough it out,” don’t risk losing a finger!
Trench foot happens when feet are exposed to wet and cold conditions for long periods of time. Like frostbite, trench foot cause redness of the skin, numbness, swelling and blisters and can be really debilitating. Keep your feet dry and warm.
2. Layer your clothing
The cold exposure that leads to cold stress can be reduced or eliminated with proper layering of clothing. Being wet is the enemy in winter, since wet body parts lose heat about 25 times faster than dry ones.
Start with at least three layers of clothing. The inner layer closest to your skin should be wool, silk or synthetic fabric that moves moisture away from your body. A middle layer of wool or synthetic fiber should be used to provide additional insulation, even when wet. The outer layer should be a waterproof shell that allows some ventilation to avoid overheating. Also wear a hat or hood to prevent heat loss from your head, as well as waterproof boots to keep your feet dry. Change out of wet clothing as soon as you can.
3. Take precautions with equipment
Fractures and sprains from slip-and-fall accidents are some of the most common injuries we see during the winter months. In addition, lacerations and amputations from improper use of equipment such as snow blowers are too common and certainly preventable.
If you are working in snow and icy conditions, it’s important to clear pathways and use deicer whenever possible. This is especially important in areas where you may be using a ladder to clear snow from a roof or overhang. If you can’t clear all the snow near your ladder, place a mat or rug nearby to wipe your feet on before climbing.
If using an electric snow blower, ensure it’s properly grounded to avoid electrical shocks. If any type of snow blower jams, never user you hand or foot to clear the jam. First turn the machine off, then turn it over and clear the jam with a stick or broom handle to avoid the devastating injuries that can otherwise happen.
If you have been diagnosed with a heart condition or hypertension, before working outdoors have a clear understanding from your doctor about your limitations. Too many otherwise smart people get careless when it snows. After months of inactivity, the big storm is the worst time to start that exercise program you’ve planned by shoveling heavy, wet snow in the freezing weather and wind. Heart attacks really are often provoked in this situation. Additionally, avoid working alone outdoors so someone is available to provide help or call for emergency medical assistance if needed.
It can be beautiful around here when snow covers the trees and the air is crisp and clean. Use common sense and these few tips to stay safe while outside when winter challenges us.
Dr. Alfred Casale is chairman of surgery for the Geisinger Heart Institute, co-director of the Cardiovascular Service Line for the Geisinger Health System and Associate Chief Medical Officer of the Geisinger Health System and Chair of the Geisinger Heart Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]