Office jobs aren’t for everyone. Some people prefer to be as far away from a desk as possible. Whether you work construction, teach skiing, or fuel airplanes for a living, you’ll spend most of your days outdoors. And while an outside job might give you more freedom and fresh air than an office job, it will also expose you to the elements in winter, which could be dangerous if you don’t take the right safety measures.
When you’re outdoors for long periods of time in the cold air and wind, your body has to work harder to maintain a healthy internal temperature. Lose too much heat, and you could end up with cold stress. As your body tries to keep up your core temperature, it channels blood flow away from your hands, feet, and other extremities to warm your internal organs. Without enough blood flow, these areas can freeze, permanently damaging tissues.
Cold stress includes these three potentially serious conditions:
Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature (below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) that happens when your internal thermometer can’t keep up with the ambient air. Because hypothermia can affect your ability to think clearly, you might not realize there’s a problem. Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, extreme fatigue, slowed breathing, and confusion. If you do notice these signs, go indoors, change into dry clothing (if you’re wet), and get warm by covering yourself in layers of blankets or towels. For severe symptoms like trouble walking or confusion, call 911 or have one of your co-workers call for help right away.
Frostbite is damage to the skin caused by freezing. “Frostbite usually affects the face, nose, ears, fingers and toes,” said board-certified dermatologist Amy J. Derick, MD, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University. Signs that you have frostbite include numbness, tingling, stinging, and bluish or waxy-colored skin. If you see these symptoms, get indoors right away. Warm the frostbitten area in warm water, or using body heat. Don’t rub the skin, because you could damage it further.
Trench foot is damage to your feet that happens when they’ve been exposed to wet and cold. It doesn’t have to be freezing outside to get trench foot. Soaking wet feet lose heat quickly, even in temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold and wetness prevent enough blood from flowing to the feet, which can cause tissue to die. Signs of trench foot include numbness, tingling, blisters, bleeding under the skin, or a purple or grayish color to the foot (this is a sign of tissue death, called gangrene). Take off your wet shoes and socks as soon as possible and dry your feet. Then get medical attention.
When you can’t avoid going outside in cold weather, dress appropriately. Wear loose layers. Loose clothing lets more blood flow to your body, which keeps you warmer. Layering allows you to remove clothing if the temperature rises. Choose moisture-wicking materials such as wool and synthetic fabrics to keep wetness away from your body. Wear a coat that’s both water- and wind-resistant. Add a hat, gloves, and insulated, waterproof boots to keep you warm from head to toe. And bring along an extra set of clothes, so if you do get wet, you can change into dry clothes right away.
On extremely cold days, plan regular breaks into your schedule if your company allows. Go inside, or at least into a heated car or truck to warm up periodically. Carry a thermos of coffee, soup, or other warm liquid. Also bring a thermometer so you can monitor your body temperature. Keep an eye on your coworkers, and ask them to look out for you.
February 25, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN