Work Injury Hazards for Outdoor Workers During the Winter


According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), outdoor work environments pose a variety of work injury hazards. The specific hazards vary depending on the type of work being done, geography, and season. Work injury risks also depend on the lengths of time each worker is exposed to outdoor cold temperatures, snow, wind and rain. It is important for workers to understand their work conditions in order to effectively identify and prevent work injury or occupational illness.


Outdoor workers face unique work injury challenges

In winter, one of the biggest risks for outdoor workers is exposure to extreme cold. Working in cold weather conditions puts the worker at risk of developing cold stress. Even in regions like ours, the Greater Seattle area, where extreme freezing temperatures and snow events occur infrequently, near freezing temperatures can cause cold stress.


Cold stress occurs when heat rapidly leaves the body. Usually, this happens due to a combination of very low temperatures and general increase in cold air flow, like wind. Cold stress can lead to serious health problems including hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains.


Winter work injury conditions – Hypothermia and Frostbite

Hypothermia is when the body loses heat faster than it makes heat. The body uses its stored energy and results in abnormally low body temperature. In turn, a person experiencing Hypothermia might have hard time thinking clearly or moving effectively. Normally, a person suffering from Hypothermia won’t know it’s happening, and can’t do anything about it.


Frostbite is when a part of the body is injured by being frozen. Here, when the body part freezes, it may lose color and feeling. It may also sustain permanent damage from tissue damage. When a tissue damage occurs, the injured person may be in need for amputation. Body parts susceptible to frost bite include the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. If you are working outside, make sure you dress properly, and wear warn protective gear. Improperly dressed workers are at an increased risk for developing frostbite.


Trench foot and cold-water immersion in winter work injuries

Trench foot happens when one foot or both feet are exposed to wet and cold conditions for an extended time. If your feet are constantly wet, it’s important to know that trench foot can even happen at temperatures as high as sixty degrees. That’s because wet feet lose heat twenty-five times faster than when they are dry. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. As a result, the body deprives the tissue of necessary oxygen and nutrients, and then the tissue dies. If you are working in cold and wet weather, it’s extremely important to wear proper footwear to prevent this kind of work injury.


Another cold weather danger for workers in our area is the risk of cold-water immersion. Workers who are immersed in cold water will likely develop immersion hypothermia. While it’s like regular hypothermia, immersion hypothermia sets in more quickly because water causes heat to leave the body much faster than air. Immersion hypothermia can occur in any water below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter months, we see a real increase in water immersion work injuries in Washington State. Lake Washington is currently only 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Similarly, Lake Sammamish is only 45 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, Elliott Bay water temperatures range between 57 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. For reference, Hood Canal ranges from 55 to 63 degrees Fahrenheit.


Summary and recommendations

In summary, outdoor work in cold months presents significant hazards for workers. To prevent the risk of work injury and illnesses, it’s important for workers to be aware of potential risks. Moreover, it’s important to know how to spot and treat symptoms early. Make sure you wear proper cold weather clothing, and that you have access to shelter and when needed. Please stay warm and safe out there!


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