Cold Environments e o ir s
Present Unique Worker Challenges Present U que Worke Challenges
The onset of winter brings a variety of hazards for workers laboring outdoors – especially those work- ing in the particularly harsh northern climates. Rain, wind and snow amplify the risk of frostbite and other injuries, with wind chills creating even colder and more challenging environments.
The wind chill for an afternoon with a 25ºF ambient temperature, for example, drops to 15ºF when the wind is 10 miles per hour. That same 25ºF decreases to 11ºF when a 25 mile per hour wind is present.
Because skin freezes at 28ºF, workers’ hands must be protected from the cold while ensuring they have the dexterity they need to perform a range of tasks, depending on the application. Laborers in various industries are at risk for cold injuries – from mining and agriculture to construction, utility workers and the military. Individuals who work in unheated warehouses and refrigerated environments face simi- lar hazards.
Cold weather challenges Many problems can arise when workers labor in a cold environment without the proper hand protec- tion.
Cramping and impaired movement – Cold hands are harder to bend and move freely and often cramp and ache. Dexterity and tactile sensitivity suffer, making it nearly impossible for workers to handle small objects, which impacts productivity.
Frostbite – This medical condition affects the extremities and results from prolonged exposure to extreme cold. Frostbite is very painful and while early stages are usually treatable, severe frostbite can cause cell death and may lead to gangrene, infection and potential loss of fingers and toes.
Some individuals are more susceptible to frostbite, including those with heart or circulatory disease, smokers and those with diabetes. Individuals who work in extreme cold should never drink alcohol because alcohol quickly lowers the body tempera- ture. An individual may not realize he or she is cold and could contract frostbite without realizing he or she is in danger. Workers whose gloves become wet from rain or snow are also more susceptible to frost- bite.
Decreased grip – Workers’ ability to grip objects is greatly reduced when the hands are cold. Because workers want to maintain a safety margin when they grip an object, they tend to predict how the object they are handling will behave. If workers do not feel they have the ability to securely grasp an object, they will apply up to 40 percent more grip force in an effort to prevent an object from slipping.
Musculoskeletal disorders, including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), have been linked to workers who constantly apply greater force in order to maintain a secure grip on objects. Exerting excessive grip can also lead to muscle fatigue, which lowers productiv- ity.
In addition, workers are more likely to drop objects when they do not have sufficient grip, which can cause other injuries to themselves and coworkers. Dropped objects can also damage equipment or star- tle and distract nearby workers.
Sweaty hands – Hot, sweaty hands can be an issue in cold environments. A worker pounding nails or shoveling grain, for example, will likely have sweaty hands if the gloves he or she is wearing do not allow moisture and heat to dissipate.
Workers’ first reaction is to remove their sweaty gloves, which may expose them to various hazards, including the cold, cuts, punctures and abrasions. Sweat also affects dex- terity and may cause the gloves to stick to the fin- gers or bind at flex points such as the knuckles, making it hard for workers to handle objects.
Dry, cracked hands — Cold temperatures tend to dry the skin and may lead to cracking, which can be painful and may impair job performance. Proper protection and hydration (drinking plenty of fluids) will help keep the hands from drying out.
Raynaud’s Syndrome – This is a condition caused by cold fingers. People with Raynaud’s Syndrome usu- ally have reactive blood vessels in the hand that respond to even mildly cold temperatures. The hands and fingers become cold and numb and may even turn white or purple. This reaction may occur after touching a cold object for just a few seconds. Raynaud’s inflicts about 15 percent of the popula- tion to some degree and is more common among women. Workers who suffer from Raynaud’s should be especially careful to protect their hands from the cold.
Barriers against the cold Worker hands must be properly protected before or as soon as they enter a cold environment because once the hands become cold it is difficult to get them warm again. Gloves with various coatings and liners are available to help keep hands warm.
Gloves with coatings such as PVC keep hands warm on the outside while providing protection against specific hazards such as chemicals.
Fabrics such as cotton, polyester/cotton blends and cotton terry may be used as liners beneath cut-resist- ant and moisture-resistant gloves to protect workers from the cold, or they may be used alone. Quilted polyester and foam insulation sandwiched between layers of cotton are also options. Gloves are avail- able with GORE-TEX® inserts that keep the insula- tion dry, prevent heat loss and protect against rain and snow, enabling workers to labor in very cold conditions for longer periods of time. GORE-TEX is breathable and allows perspiration to dissipate.
Terry gloves are excellent for keeping hands warm in cold envi- ronments.
Some workers prefer to double glove. A Thinsulate® liner, for example, provides excellent insulation when worn beneath a leather glove or a cut resistant product. Gloves made with fabrics such as Thinsulate and Thermolite® are good choices because they are lightweight and provide excellent protection against the cold without the bulk associat- ed with heavier materials and double gloving.
Coatings such as PVC (which stays soft even in the cold), natural rubber, neoprene and nitrile keep hands warm on the outside and provide protection against specific hazards. Neoprene, for example, provides excellent protection against chemicals. Coated gloves also help protect worker hands from the wind.
Coated gloves with a raised pattern or textured or embossed surface promote a better grip.
Taking precautions Companies can protect workers from the cold by planning ahead and taking certain precautions.
1. Select the right gloves and other personal protec- tive equipment for the task and conditions. If employees are working in near zero temperatures and handling sharp objects or equipment, they must have gloves that are cut-resistant and protect against the cold. Instant hot packs may also be good to have available.
2. Train workers so they know what gloves to wear for specific applications and the health and perform- ance advantages of wearing those products. Workers