By: Vashti Kelly, Program Manager

Despite the inherent idea of long winter months being frigid and barren; that is not always the case. There are a number of crops that grow during cold months, which, like other months, require farm workers working in the cold to harvest them. Similar to heat stress, when farm workers are required to spend long periods of time in cold environments there is the risk of suffering from cold stress. Although, both heat stress and cold stress are preventable. Yet, if proper precautions are not taken it can result in death in extreme cases. When exposed to cold temperatures, the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced and prolonged exposure will eventually deplete the body’s stored energy (heat).

Environmental Factors of Cold Stress:

  • Cold Air Temperatures
  • High Velocity Air Movement
  • Dampness of the Air
  • Contact with Cold Water or Surfaces

Personal Factors of Cold Stress:

  • Pre-existing Health Conditions (arthritis, diabetes, hypothyroidism, use of prosthesis)
  • Certain Medications (anti-depressants, sedatives, heart medication)
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Caffeinated Beverages (energy drinks, soda, coffee)

Cold related illnesses can slowly overcome a worker that has been chilled by low temperatures, terse winds and/or snow, or wet clothing. Working in a cold environment forces the body to work harder just to maintain its normal internal temperature (98.6° F/37°C).  Over time, the body will begin to transfer blood flow from the extremities (arms, hands, legs, and feet) and outer layers of the skin to its core (chest and abdomen). This process allows exposed skin and the extremities to cool rapidly and in turn increasing the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

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Common Cold Related Illnesses:

Frostbite Severe reaction to cold exposure that causes freezing in the deep layers of the skin and body tissue. Affected body part will be:

·      Cold

·      Tingling

·      Stinging or Aching followed by numbness

·      Blisters (in severe cases)

·      Skin color turns red, then purple, then white, and is cold to the touch

·     Minor frostbite can be treated by re-warming the area using skin-to-skin contact, such as a warm hand. If more serious get the person to a warmer place.

·     Remove any jewelry from affected areas.

·     Place clean pads between frostbitten digits.

·     Wrap affected part with a clean towel or pad.

Hypothermia The term means “low-heat”, and occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced. ·      Uncontrollable Shivering

·      Memory Lapses

·      Drowsiness

·      Slow Speech

·      Frequent Stumbling

·      Exhaustion

·     Gently move the person to a warmer place

·     Remove wet clothing

·     Cover the person with something dry and warm

·     Contact Emergency Medical Services, while waiting start re-warming the person, place the person near a heat source and put containers of warm water in contact with skin.

Immersion Foot Also known as “trench foot”, is caused by having feet immersed in cold water at temperatures above freezing for long periods. (Similar to frostbite but less severe.) ·      Tingling Sensations

·      Itching Sensations

·      Burning Sensations

·     Thoroughly clean and dry your feet.

·     Put on clean, dry socks daily.

·     Treat affected area by applying warm packs or soaking in warm water (102°-110° F) for approx. 5 minutes.

·     Do not wear socks when sleeping.

·     Obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.

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Important Notes:

It is important to note that rubbing frostbitten digits can cause further damage, skin must be warmed slowly. Do not rub or pour hot water directly on the affected area; or warm the skin if there is a chance it will become cold again, as large crystals may form in the tissues. Drinking alcohol can increase the chances of hypothermia. Despite the initial warm flush, drinking alcohol can lower the body’s core temperature. As with any work related illness or injury prevention is key. There are a number of actions farm workers can take to avoid falling victim to cold related illnesses:

  • Protective Clothing-
    • The type of fabric is essential to retaining warmth. Cotton loses its ability to keep you warm, especially when wet. Wool, silk and most synthetics keep the wearer warm even when wet.
    • Workers should wear multiple layers (at least three layers) of clothing. An inner layer to wick away moisture from the body. A middle layer to provide insulation, even when wet. And, an outer layer to protect against the wind and rain while still allowing ventilation to prevent overheating.
    • A hat or hood, since up to 40% of body heat escapes from the head.
    • Insulated boots or footwear.
    • Keeping a change of dry clothing in case work clothes become wet.
  • Learning the signs and symptoms of cold related illnesses and injuries and what to do to help a person who has fallen victim.
  • Take frequent short breaks in warm, dry areas to allow the body to warm up.
  • Try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day.
  • Keep an eye out for your fellow worker, in order to recognize danger signs.

Although not often recognized, cold is an occupational health hazard for many farm workers and as a result under reported. Farm workers exposed to the cold should receive training regarding the health effects of cold exposure, proper procedures, recognition of signs and symptoms and the first aid to help reduce the risks of cold stress. For more information, there are a number of resources available, such as, NIOSH Fast Facts, to provide reminders to both workers and employers about the dangers and preventative measures to avoid cold induced injuries and illnesses.