Winter Weather Brings Risks for Workers

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After 2011's record-breaking number of extreme weather events, many are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst this winter. However, many areas are just entering the hardest part of winter. For instance, Illinois state climatologists estimate that the area experiences an average of five major winter storms between November and April, with January the worst month. While many of us can take steps to avoid being exposed to potentially deadly weather, for others, it's a part of their job. Utility and sanitation workers, fire and police, even agriculture, transportation and warehouse workers are constantly exposed to cold temperatures. As a result, many of these workers may develop a variety of injuries caused by cold stress.

Cold Stress occurs when excessive exposure to cold causes a variety of medical problems ranging from minor to potentially deadly. These situations can occur even in nonfreezing weather, particularly for workers who are unprepared for and/or improperly protected from lowered temperatures. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) particularly warns workers of four major cold stress injuries:

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when your body is unable to produce enough heat to maintain safe body temperatures in colder weather. Contrary to popular belief, a person can develop hypothermia even in temperatures above freezing. Untreated, hypothermia can lead to disorientation, unconsciousness, and ultimately death. Symptoms include shivering, cold skin that looks blue or pale, fatigue, lack of coordination, disorientation, and unconsciousness.

Frost Bite

Frost bite occurs when the deep layers of the skin become frozen. When this occurs, blood flow to the areas is reduced, causing sometimes permanent tissue damage. In severe cases, amputation of the affected area is required. Extremities like fingers and toes are often at risk, as well as facial areas like ears, nose, and cheeks. Symptoms include loss of feeling, tingling or pain in the affected area, as well as blue or pale, waxy skin.

Trench Foot

Trench foot occurs usually after continual exposure to cold and wet conditions. According to the CDC, this can even occur in 60-degree weather if feet are continually wet. Wet feet lose heat at a rate considerably higher than dry feet. In response, the body will stop or slow circulation in the feet to prevent further heat loss. Without the circulation, foot tissue begins to die. Symptoms include numbness or pain of the foot, cramping, red skin, blisters and ulcers, and bleeding under the skin. Gangrene can occur, at which time the foot may appear blue or grey.

Chilblains

Chilblains occur when exposure to cold temperatures causes damage to small blood vessels in the skin. Affected skin becomes red and itchy. Additional symptoms can include pain, blistering, inflammation and ulceration. In severe cases, infection can occur.

To avoid injury, the CDC recommends that employers require workers to wear appropriate cold weather gear. Workers should also be allowed regular breaks, with access to warm areas and warm liquids. Educate workers on recognizing and avoiding cold weather injuries and provide monitoring to ensure they are not showing signs of cold stress.

Workers should be aware of the potential for injury during cold weather and make certain to alert their supervisor and a physician immediately if they feel any of the symptoms of cold stress. If you have already been injured as a result of working in cold conditions, you may also be eligible for workers' compensation. Contact a Chicago workers compensation lawyer who can advise you of your rights.
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