Preventative Measures During Cold Weather by Muhammad Akram

When the body is unable to warm itself, cold related stress may result. Four factors contribute to cold stress: cold air temperatures, high velocity air movement, dampness of the air, and contact with cold water or surfaces. A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. While it is obvious that below freezing conditions combined with inadequate clothing could bring about cold stress, it is also important to understand that wind chill, which is the combination of air temperature and wind speed, can play a significant role in cold-related stress at above freezing temperatures when coupled with moisture and wind.  For example, when the air temperature is 40°F, and the wind speed is 35 mph, exposed skin “feels” the equivalent of an 11°F air temperature.

Planning in advance of work (or play) in cold weather is very important. Avoiding alcohol, certain medications and smoking can also help to minimize risk. Wearing appropriate clothing and being aware of how your body is reacting to the cold are important to preventing cold stress.
Protective clothing is the most important way to avoid cold stress. The type of fabric also makes a difference. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet. Wool, silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation properties, even when wet. The following are recommendations for working (or playing) in cold environments:

  • Wear at least three layers of clothing. An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to wick moisture away from the body. A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet. An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Wear a hat or hood. Up to 40% of body heat can be lost when the head is left exposed.
  • Wear insulated boots or other footwear.
  • Keep a change of dry clothing available in case clothes become wet.
  • With the exception of the wicking layer, do not wear tight clothing. Do not underestimate the wetting effects of perspiration. Oftentimes wicking and venting of the body’s sweat and heat are more important than protecting from rain or snow.

Work practices are important preventative measures. Drink plenty of liquids, avoiding caffeine and alcohol. It is easy to become dehydrated in cold weather. If possible, heavy work should be scheduled during the warmer parts of the day. Take breaks out of the cold. Try to work in pairs to keep an eye on each other and watch for signs of cold stress. Avoid fatigue since energy is needed to keep muscles warm. Take frequent breaks and ensure adequate nourishment. 

Engineering controls can also be effective in reducing the risk of cold stress. Radiant heaters may be used to warm workers. Shielding work areas from drafts or wind will reduce wind chill. Use insulating material on equipment handles, especially metal handles, when temperatures drop below 30° F.

Be mindful of how your body is responding to cold, wet and/or windy conditions and adjust your schedule, equipment and protective clothing accordingly to best avoid cold related stress.

Please Welcome Christopher Aston, Ph.D., Sr. Biological Safety Officer

EH&S is pleased to announce the addition of Christopher Aston, Ph.D., to our staff as Senior Biological Safety Officer, effective December 1, 2011.  Dr. Aston earned his B.Sc. in Cell and Immunobiology from University College of Wales, holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Oxford University and the Rockefeller University, and has served in various research and biosafety roles in academia and both the private and public sectors over the last 2 decades.  Dr. Aston has contributed numerous articles to the literature in the fields of infectious diseases, genomics, microbial pathogenesis and biodefense, and will be responsible for supporting all technical and regulatory biosafety activities across Columbia University.

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