Cold Weather Injuries
Weather-related accidents and injuries can happen at any time of the year. Winter weather brings more hazards than other seasons, especially for workers who are routinely exposed to the elements. For workers in particular industries, it is important to understand the risks of cold weather injuries and how they can be prevented. Workers who sustain a cold weather injury while on the job are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits to cover medical costs and lost wages.
The winter season brings a drop in temperature, but it is not just the cold that may put workers at risk. Winter weather conditions that endanger workers include:
- Heavy snow
- Sleet or freezing rain
- Icy conditions
- High winds
Workers who are outside or on the road during extreme weather conditions, such as blizzards, are at risk for serious injury and must take precaution.
Workers at Risk for Winter Injuries
Outdoor work does not come to a halt when the temperatures drop. Workers in many industries must continue working outside during the winter months, including:
- Construction workers
- Public safety workers, such as police, firefighters, or emergency medical technicians
- Public transit workers
- Utility workers
- Mail carriers or other delivery workers
- Airport employees
- Farmers or other agricultural workers
- Oil and gas workers
- Truck drivers
Severe winter weather can require workers to come out to plow streets or clear train tracks, repair power lines, direct traffic, or other tasks to keep the public safe. Working outdoors in these conditions puts workers at risk for cold stress, a drop in the body’s internal temperature that can cause serious damage if not remedied immediately.
Outdoor workers are not the only ones at risk for cold-related injuries; there are some indoor jobs that expose workers to colder temperatures. Some jobs require areas that are kept cold to handle frozen products or perform similar tasks. If so, the temperatures in these areas should be carefully controlled so that drafts do not drop temperatures even further, and there should be warm, dry areas for workers to take breaks whenever necessary. Workers should have the right gear to limit their cold exposure, just as if they were working outside.
Types of Cold Stress
Cold stress begins when the body’s skin temperature drops and can progress quickly to affect the body’s core temperature. Extreme cold and wind chill can have this effect, and if workers have damp clothing from snow, rain, or even their own sweat, it compounds this risk. If the body cannot warm itself and its temperature stays too low, tissue and organs may be damaged as a result. Common injuries that occur as a result of cold stress include:
- Chilblains: This causes inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin. Repeated exposure to low but non-freezing temperatures can cause damage to the skin and tissue underneath. Symptoms include redness, itching, pain, inflammation, blisters, and ulcers.
- Trench foot: This is a non-freezing injury that occurs when feet are cold or damp for long periods of time. Prolonged dampness can cause trench foot even when temperatures are not as low, as wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet. Symptoms include pain, redness, tingling or numbness, swelling, muscle cramps, blisters, and gangrene, when the foot appears dark purple, blue, or gray.
- Frostbite: This is freezing of skin and tissues, commonly seen on extremities, such as fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, chin, or earlobes. If not treated immediately, frostbite can cause tissue to die due to decreased circulation, which may result in amputation. Symptoms can include gray and white patches on the skin, blue or waxy skin, tingling and numbness, aching, unusual firmness in affected area, and blisters.
- Hypothermia: This occurs when there is a drop in body temperature to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. When a person loses body heat faster than they can regenerate it, they use up their stored energy and their internal functions may start to shut down. Symptoms can begin with uncontrollable shivering and fatigue as the body tries to warm itself; as it progresses, hypothermia can impact brain function and cause confusion, slurred speech, loss of coordination, dilated pupils, slow heart rate or breathing, unconsciousness, or even death.
If workers suspect they are suffering from any of these conditions, they should be moved to a warm, dry place and replace any wet clothing with dry clothing immediately. Emergency medical care may be needed in some cases, especially for hypothermia, which can have lasting effects if not treated immediately.
Some workers may have a higher risk for cold stress than others due to their medical history. Workers with chronic conditions, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, or are taking certain medications that may affect circulation, are more likely to develop cold stress than others. Cold weather can also worsen musculoskeletal injuries or vascular conditions. Employers should be aware of which employees have these conditions and take steps to limit their exposure. Workers who smoke are also at an increased risk for cold weather injuries.
Other Cold Weather Injuries
Cold stress is not the only risk faced by workers during the winter. Ice and snow can cause slippery conditions that increase the risk of slip and fall accidents. This is especially dangerous when working at elevated heights, and employees should always have harnesses and proper protective gear to prevent a fall. Heavy snow and ice may also cause objects to fall or structures to collapse if they are not properly supported, so helmets are essential in some industries.
Winter weather can also have a big impact on road conditions and make driving more dangerous. Unfortunately, winter also happens to be a popular time to travel, especially during the holiday season, and more cars on the road can result in more accidents. Drivers must take extra precaution in winter to avoid a weather-related car accident due to slippery surfaces or decreased visibility. This is especially true for truck drivers, as the size and weight of their vehicles makes it more difficult to stop on slippery roads. Workers who are loading or unloading vehicles or performing maintenance on their vehicles outdoors face the same risks as other outdoor workers and should take the same precautions.
Winter, also known as cold and flu season, is the peak time for the flu and other flu-like illnesses, which can easily spread in the workplace. Winter illnesses can keep employees out of work and cost businesses money. The flu can be extremely severe in some cases, especially in people aged 65 and older, and can even be fatal to some. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers take steps to help prevent the spread of colds, sinus infections, and influenza, including:
- Promote flu vaccines for employees or provide them in the office
- Encourage preventive measures, such as hand-washing and proper respiratory hygiene
- Educate employees on flu symptoms and encourage them to stay home if they are ill, especially with a fever
Employers’ Responsibility in Cold Weather Conditions
OSHA does not have specific regulations for working in cold conditions, but it does require employers to create a safe working environment for their employees, even in winter weather conditions. While they cannot control the weather, employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent cold weather injuries, such as:
- Properly training employees
- Providing protective gear that is appropriate for the weather and fits well
- Scheduling work for the warmest part of the day when possible
- Allowing employees to take breaks in a warm area
- Keeping exposure to cold weather limited whenever possible
- Monitoring workers’ conditions and training supervisors to recognize symptoms of cold stress
- Providing enough staff to get the job done without endangering workers
- Instructing employees to work in pairs so that they can watch for cold stress symptoms
- Having emergency supplies on hand, such as hand warmers, thermometers, and first aid supplies
- Getting prompt medical attention for workers who may be suffering from a cold weather injury or illness
It is important to note that OSHA does not require employers to provide clothing for their employees. Workers in cold weather conditions should dress in layers so they can adjust if they begin to overheat or the temperature changes; the layer closest to the skin should be wool, silk, or synthetic fabric to help wick away moisture. Loose clothing is better than fitted clothing, as anything too tight can decrease circulation and make workers more susceptible to injury. Many employers provide winter gear, such as heavy coats, hats, or gloves, although they are not required to do so. If they do not, employees should have their own on hand and make sure their head and neck are always covered.
Workers’ Compensation for Cold Weather Injuries
Workers who suffer from a cold-related injury in the course of performing their job duties are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Cold stress and other winter injuries can require costly medical treatment, and severe injuries may leave employees with lasting consequences, such as amputation or loss of function. Depending on the nature of their injury, injured workers may recover compensation for:
- Medical expenses: Employers are required to cover treatment related to the employee’s work injury
- Lost wages: Employees receive a percentage of their income if they are unable to work while they recover
- Permanent disability: If the employee is left with permanent loss of function and either cannot work or must work in a limited capacity, they will be entitled to long-term benefits
In order to recover benefits, employees must file a claim in a timely manner and provide thorough documentation of their injuries and resulting treatment. Insurance companies will often try to deny paying out benefits, either by denying that the injury was work related or trying to downplay its severity. It is important to have an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer by your side to protect your interests and ensure that you receive all the benefits to which you are entitled.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. Help Injured Workers Obtain Maximum Compensation
The Philadelphia workers’ compensation lawyers at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. have successfully represented injured workers in all types of cases for over 40 years. We will thoroughly review the facts of your cold weather injury case and prepare a sound legal strategy to obtain the compensation you deserve. We have the knowledge and experience to help you through every step of your case, from filing a claim to representing you in hearings, if necessary. Call us today at 888-PITT-LAW or contact us online for a free consultation.
Located in Philadelphia, Bensalem, Lansdowne, and Reading, we represent injured workers in Berks County, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, Philadelphia County and throughout Pennsylvania, including those in the communities of Abington, Ambler, Ardmore, Bala Cynwyd, Bensalem, Clifton Heights, Crum Lynne, Darby, Downingtown, Doylestown, Drexel Hill, Essington, Folcroft, Glenolden, Haverford, Havertown, Holmes, Kutztown, Lansdowne, Media, Merion Station, Morton, Narberth, Norristown, Norwood, Philadelphia, Prospect Park, Quakertown, Reading, Roxborough, Sharon Hill, Upper Darby, West Chester, and Wynnewood.