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Recognising and Preventing Cold Stress

Thousands of employees across the UK are exposed to long hours outside in the cold every year. Employees who work in industries such as construction, policing, oil and gas, and utility repair are at a higher risk of suffering from cold stress.

The risks, however, are not only for outdoor workers. Those working in places like cold stores, refrigerated warehouses, and fridge aisles also face the danger of cold temperatures.

It is important to know that cold stress is preventable. If its symptoms go unnoticed for an extended period of time, however, it can be extremely dangerous, and even fatal.

What Is Cold Stress?

Cold stress occurs when the body is no longer able to maintain its normal temperature. Its complications can be very serious as individuals affected by it are at risk of developing other cold-related conditions that might result in permanent damage to the body and even death. When people work in cold environments, their bodies are forced to work harder to maintain their normal temperature as they lose heat much quicker.

Young female outside in cold weather

This isn’t only relevant for those who work in freezing temperatures without wearing suitable clothing, though: some of the factors that define a cold environment can be easily overlooked.

Generally, cold environments are defined by the following working conditions:

  • Temperature below 10℃
  • High wind speed (above 40MPH)
  • Humidity
  • Contact with cold surfaces and/or water

It is important to keep this set of factors in mind as it indicates that cold stress can occur even at moderate temperatures if the employees are working in the rain with a high wind speed.

What Are the Symptoms?

Several types of cold stress exist, including hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot. Being able to recognize their symptoms is essential as it can help save employees’ lives.


Hypothermia is a condition which occurs when the temperature of the body drops too low. Its symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Excessive shivering
  • Loss of coordination

During later stages, the affected individual’s skin turns blue, their pupils dilate, and their pulse and breathing slow down. Unless the person receives treatment, unconsciousness, coma, and death may follow.

Man in blue jacket lying down in snow, freezing


When people are exposed to cold environment conditions for long periods of time, ice begins to form in and around cells of the skin, preventing the blood from moving through capillaries and depriving body tissue of the oxygen and nutrients it requires. The following early warning signs may occur:

  • Numbness
  • Sensation of pins and needles
  • Blue/ blotchy skin
  • Pain in the affected area

Blisters and/or black scabs may form at later stages. Unless treated on time, the condition may cause the need for amputation of the damaged tissue as the only solution.

Cold female hands

Trench Foot

Trench foot is caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 15℃ if the feet are constantly submerged in mud or water since wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. When this happens, the blood vessels constrict to shut down circulation in the feet and prevent further heat loss. Skin tissue then begins to die as it’s being deprived of oxygen and nutrients. This can cause:

  • Blotchy skin
  • Redness
  • Prickliness
  • Numbness

Reducing the Risks

There are various preventive measures you can take to protect your employees whose job involves prolonged exposure to low temperatures:

  • Risk assessment: begin by carrying out an assessment to see what hazards exist, who’s affected by them and how they can be minimised or eliminated
  • Providing correct training: make sure everyone on site receives training and information regarding cold stress symptoms and safe working practices
  • Adjusting the work schedule: if possible, schedule heavy work during the warmer parts of the day and enforce regular breaks in warm, dry shelters
  • Introducing a buddy system: working in pairs can allow two workers to keep an eye on each other as some victims of cold stress are not always able to recognise their own symptoms
  • Providing protective clothing: ensure all employees are equipped with protective clothing suitable for cold environments

Construction employee performing road work in cold weather

The best way to ensure the protection of your employees working in high-risk environments is to invest in occupational health services. If you are looking for an efficient way of managing the occupational risks at your workplace, Healthscreen UK are here to support you, your business, and your workforce. Click here to contact us for more information or request a free, no-obligation quote!

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