Episode 39 – Cold Stress (Short)


Toolbox Topic: Cold Stress

Lower temperatures are not only uncomfortable but can also be a serious workplace hazard. Everyone needs to understand cold stress and how to protect themselves. In today’s episode, we will discuss the dangers of cold stress and ways to stay safe during those winter months.


Definition of Cold Stress

Cold stress occurs when the body’s core temperature and the temperature of the skin drop below the normal range. These conditions can result in serious injuries or even death.


Types of Cold Stress

Immersion/Trench Foot

Trench foot is a non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60°F if feet are constantly wet. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. [CDC/NIOSH]

Symptoms include reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness, and blisters.

First Aid:

  • Call 911 immediately or seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
  • Remove wet shoes and wet socks.
  • Dry the feet, keep them elevated and avoid walking on them.  


Hypothermia occurs when the average body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. Exposure to cold temperatures causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up the body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia or abnormally low body temperature. Hypothermia typically occurs at freezing temperatures but can occur at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or immersion in cold water.

One of the minor symptoms includes uncontrollable shivering. Although shivering indicates that the body is losing heat, it also helps the body warm itself. Moderate to severe symptoms of hypothermia are loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slowed heart rate, labored breathing, unconsciousness, and possibly death. When the body temperature drops too low, it affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. These symptoms make hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know what is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.



The freezing of the skin and tissues causes frostbite. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not appropriately dressed for cold temperatures. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body and, in severe cases, can lead to amputation.

Symptoms can include reddened skin, gray or white patches in the fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes, tingling, aching, a loss of feeling, stiffness, and blisters.

First Aid

  • Protect the frostbitten area, e.g., by wrapping loosely in a dry cloth, and protect the area from contact until medical help arrives.

  • DO NOT rub the affected area because rubbing causes damage to the skin and tissue.

  • Do not apply snow or water. Do not break blisters.

  • DO NOT try to rewarm the frostbitten area before getting medical help; for example, do not use heating pads or place it in warm water. It is safer for the frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals. More tissue damage will occur if a frostbitten area is rewarmed and frozen again.

  • Give warm, sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol).


Preventing Cold Stress

Anyone exposed to working in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress. When the weather is cold, your body has to work harder to maintain its core temperature. As temperatures drop and wind speeds increase, our bodies lose heat more quickly.

  • Use PPE that is suited to the environmental conditions. Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
  • Know the symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do to help those affected.
  • Control the environment using heaters or building enclosures to shield work areas from drafts to reduce wind chill.
  • Take frequent breaks in warm, dry areas to allow the body to warm up.
  • Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
  • Wear layers of loose-fitting clothing appropriate for working in the cold, and keep it as dry as possible.
  • Keep extra clothing accessible in case your garments or protective gear get wet.
  • Wear a hat or hood to help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.  

Don’t Leave Safety In the Cold

Cold stress can be severe, and anyone working outdoors during the winter can be at risk.


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