This winter you may have been introduced to a new weather phenomenon that you have never heard of before, and likely will never want to hear from again. It was the polar vortex. While not so rare that it is a once in a lifetime event, it also doesn’t happen all the time. It last happened in 2014, before then it made appearances in 1989, 1985, 1982 and 1977. This vortex swoops down from the north pole carrying with it extremely cold temperatures.
When it comes to workers who spend either all or most of their work week outside, living in a state like Illinois can be very tough between the months of November and March. While a polar vortex does not have to be around to make conditions dangerous for outdoor workers in the winter, it can make a bad situation much worse.
There are standards for safety and health for workers who need to be in cold environments, but it is up to each workplace to comply with the rules and for you to follow.
Can it be too cold to work?
During a winter in which there is a polar vortex and temperature can be between -20 and -30 below zero with wind chills approaching -60 below, having any exposed skin outside for more than one minute can be dangerous. For a normal winter, OSHA recognizes that different parts of the country view cold in different ways. However, anytime the temperature is below freezing (32 degrees), you can be in danger.
Risks of working in extreme cold temperatures
Working outside in the extreme cold can be dangerous if you are wet, damp, not adequately dressed or are fatigued. Cold temps can lower skin and body temperatures that over time can lead to serious and even fatal health conditions. Here are some of the most common injuries that can come from working in the cold:
Frostbite – This will happen when your skin becomes so cold that the underlying tissue becomes frozen. This will occur more easily and rapidly on exposed skin and on the extremities of your body such as fingers, toes, ears and nose. Harsh frostbite can sometimes require amputation.
Hypothermia – This will set in when your body loses more heat than it can replace, and the temperature of your body goes below 95 degrees. It does not even have to be extremely cold to get hypothermia, long periods of time in under 40-degree temperatures can drive down body temp. Symptoms include disorientation, slow pulse, loss of consciousness and rapid shivering.
Trench foot – If your feet are exposed to cold temperatures, you can experience skin tissue loss in your feet due to a lack of oxygen and a buildup of toxins from the lack of circulation.
The best way to prevent injury from cold temperatures is to follow the rules set-forth by your company when working outside and to wear adequate clothing for the elements. Hats, gloves, extra socks and boots are a good start. If you do not have proper covering, you should limit your body to cold exposure and not take the chance for injury. If you suffer an injury due to the cold, you should contact an attorney who can help you determine if you have a case to receive compensation.