Highlighting cold weather risks: Frostbite and hypothermia

Lone working in rural locations during the winter months, dealing with harsher weather conditions only exacerbates risks.

January 18, 2022

In our separate article ‘Winter weather considerations for outdoor lone workers; we highlight some of the risks your lone workers may face. These include slips, trips and falls, the impact of poor visibility and travelling conditions. 

In this article we specifically discuss frostbite and hypothermia, what these conditions are, why they can be serious, the symptoms to look out for and how to prevent exposure to them in the first place. First let’s define what frostbite and hypothermia are.

Frostbite is damage to skin and tissue caused by exposure to freezing temperatures – typically any temperature below -0.55C (31F). Frostbite needs to be treated by a healthcare professional.

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature below 35C (normal body temperature is around 37C). It’s a medical emergency that needs to be treated in hospital.

Education to prevent overexposure to cold

As an employer it is your duty of care to ensure that your employees or contractors have adequate awareness of the effects of cold temperatures on their body and mind to enable them to make informed decisions about their welfare and ability to carry out their job. 

If your core body temperature drops just a few degrees, hypothermia will set in. With even mild hypothermia, your brain and body DO NOT work as well. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.

Medlineplus.gov

Spotting the signs
The NHS and Medial News Today offer detailed information and advice to assess the early signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Be aware that frostbite and hypothermia can occur at the same time. 

The early stage of frostbite is called frostnip and it often affects people who live or work in cold climates. The extremities, such as the fingers, nose, ears and toes, are most commonly affected. Signs include:

  • Red and cold skin; skin may start to turn white but is still soft
  • Pins and needles, throbbing or aching of the affected area
  • Tingling sensation and numbness
  • Stinging

Early warning signs of hypothermia include:

  • Feeling cold
  • Shivering
  • Pale, cold adn dry skin – their skin and lips may be blue
  • Slurred speech, the “Umbles:” stumbles, bumbles, grumbles, and mumbles. These are signs that cold is affecting your body and brain
  • Slow breathing
  • Tiredness or confusion

Actions to prevent conditions worsening

To prevent more serious problems, take action as soon as you notice early signs.

Actions for frostbite:

  • Get out of the cold, wind, rain, or snow – move indoors or somewhere sheltered if possible
  • Do not put pressure on the affected area
  • Warm up any area with frostnip. Remove tight jewellery or clothing. Place cold fingers in your armpits or warm a cold nose or cheek with the palm of your warm hand. DO NOT rub
  • A frostbitten area should be warmed up by a healthcare professional to prevent further damage

Actions for hypothermia

  • Get out of the cold, wind, rain, or snow – move indoors or somewhere sheltered if possible
  • Remove any wet clothing, wrap in a warm blanket, sleeping bag or dry towel, make sure your head is covered
  • Add warm layers of clothing
  • If fully awake eat carbohydrates or sugary food like chocolate
  • Drink fluids – a warm non-alcholic drink
  • Move your body to help warm your core. Do jumping jacks or flap your arms.

The tragic death of Ronald Alexander, a 74 year old security guard at a Wind Farm in Ayrshire resulted in two companies being fined a combined c£180,000 for breaching sections 2 and 3 of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. The security guard died after being found lying face down and hypothermic, in deep snow, at a remote hillside in Ayrshire.

During the court hearing for this case, it transpired that the location Ronald Alexander was protecting was known to have poor mobile signal and the site had no landline, so there were no reliable means of calling for help. In addition, the employer failed to ensure that there was a backup generator to ensure a welfare area with heat and light, despite it having failed on several occasions prior to this incident. 

HSE inspector Gerard Muir said after the hearing: “This incident could so easily have been avoided had either company ensured that a suitable assessment had been made of the risk to those working at the site in poor weather, that suitable and sufficient means had been provided for the guards to communicate offsite, and that back-up generators had been provided, particularly when they knew how often the main generator had failed. 

The full press release is located here.

By simply carrying out these correct control measures and ensuring safe working practices at this site, this tragic event could have been avoided.

Gerard Muir

HSE Inspector

This tragic case goes to highlight the importance of carrying out adequate Health & Safety Assessments, including awareness of the distressing impact that winter weather can have in terms of increasing risk.

Prevention of cold related conditions

Most of the time frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia can be prevented by taking precautions during cold weather.

You can get hypothermia if you do not wear enough clothes in cold weather, stay out in the cold too long, fall into cold water or have wet clothes and get cold.

  • Avoid unnecessary exposure to cold temperatures. Wind chill (the combination of wind and cold temperatures can cause a rapid drop in body temperature, so avoid goind out when it’s cold and windy)
  • Wear appropriate clothing that protects your extremities – well-insulated boots, thick well-fitting socks, mittens (they provide better protection than gloves), a warm, weatherproof hat that covers your ears, multiple thin layers of loose-fitting clothing which act as insulation (rather than a few thicker layers).
  • Plan ahead if you are travelling in cold weather, plan for emergencies – keep a warm blanket and spare clothes in your car.
  • Let others know where you are going and when you will be back.
  • Take a fully charged mobile phone.
  • Do not drink alcohol which causes you to lose heat at a faster rate.

 

How Trackplot can help

Our purpose at Trackplot is to help lone workers operating in rural, isolated, and hazardous locations to keep safe. We have designed Trackplot World, our satellite-based lone worker monitoring solution, specifically for outdoor lone workers. Typically exposed to environmental hazards, Trackplot World enables outdoor lone workers to keep in touch wherever they are and in all weather conditions. Let us help you ensure your lone workers come home safely from work each day.

 

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