Winter Safety Tips: Cold Stress and Frostbite

Jan 24, 2024, 15:23 PM
Content author:
Arnulfo Moreno
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As ice, snow, cold weather and polar vortexes make their way around the country, staying warm and safe should be a top priority both at work and at home. Use the tips below from the ISRI Safety Team to ensure that when you engage in winter activities, you engage safely or not at all.

General Tips

Before venturing outside in winter, be sure to:

  • Check the temperature and limit your time outdoors if it’s very cold, wet or windy.
  • Bundle up in several layers of loose clothing.
  • Wear mittens rather than gloves.
  • Cover your head and ears with a warm hat.
  • Wear socks that will keep your feet warm and dry.

Cold Stress

Anyone working in a cold environment may be at risk of cold stress. Some workers may be required to work outdoors in cold environments and for extended periods. Cold stress can be encountered in any outdoor type of work environment in cooler climates during the winter months. This basic assumption requires employers to address cold stress as an occupational hazard and provide employees with some basic information.

Employees working in cold environments should be trained on:

  • How to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress.
  • The symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent it, and how to help those who are affected.
  • How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
  • Wearing at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Do not wear tight-fitting clothing.
  • Using an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body.
    • The silk or wicking layer should be against the skin to wick away moisture and help keep the skin dry from sweat.
    • The next layer should be wool. Wool has insulating value even when wet.
    • Avoid cotton because it holds moisture and will not insulate well. Wet cotton may actually contribute to hypothermia.
  • Wearing a hat or hood to help keep your whole body warmer.
  • Wearing hats to reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
  • Using insulated gloves to protect the hands (water resistant if necessary).
  • Wearing insulated and waterproof footwear.

Remember, cold stress doesn’t just mean temperatures below 32°. Temperatures in the 50’s with wet conditions can have similar effects on the body. The wind must also be considered when working outdoors. A 40° outdoor temperature with a 20 mile per hour wind makes it feel like 30°.


Even skin that is protected can be subject to frostbite. It’s the most common injury resulting from exposure to severe cold, and it usually occurs on fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin. If caught early, it is possible to prevent permanent damage. If not, frostbite can cause tissue death and lead to amputation.

Superficial frostbite affects the skin surface while the underlying tissue remains soft. The skin appears white, waxy, or grayish-yellow and is cold and numb. If the condition progresses to deep frostbite, all layers of the skin are affected, and the outcome likely will be more serious. The skin will become completely numb, blisters may form and eventually the skin tissue dies and turns black.

If you suspect frostbite:

  • Move the victim out of the cold and into a warm place.
  • Remove wet clothing and constricting items.
  • Protect between fingers and toes with dry gauze.
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Warm the frostbitten area in lukewarm water (99° to 104°) for 20 to 30 minutes only if medical care will be delayed and if there is no danger of the skin refreezing.
  • Do not use chemical warmers directly on frostbitten tissue.
  • Protect and elevate the frostbitten area.
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