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Polar vortex raises risk of work injuries caused by cold stress

Extreme weather can put outdoor workers at an elevated risk of on-the-job injuries.

Last summer, we discussed this in the context of heat-related injuries and deaths. As we noted in our August 30 post, about 30 U.S. workers have died every year over the past decade from excessive heat.

In today's post, let's turn our focus to the effect of extreme cold on outdoor workers. The issue is a timely one because much of the country has been struggling with bitter blasts of Arctic air in recent days.

The operative term many people are using for the cold wave is "polar vortex." The effect has been to put numerous outdoor workers under highly unusual levels of cold stress.

These workers include construction workers, postal delivery carriers, firefighters, utility workers and many others who have to work outside.

In the summer, the well-known catch phrase is, "it's not the heat, it's the humidity." Recently, large swaths of the country have been reminded of the winter equivalent: it's not only the temperature, it's the wind chill.

The combination of low temperatures and high wind speed can have severe consequences for the body. When someone is exposed to severe windchill and unable to stay warm, it can damage the tissues of the body.

Indeed, cold stress can even be fatal if it is severe enough. After all, Jack London's classic story "To Build a Fire" reflects the sobering reality that it is possible to freeze to death under extreme conditions.

Employers who send people out to work in harrowing windchills should therefore be aware of the harm that can be caused by cold stress.

Source: EHS Today, "How Cold Is Too Cold? Tips to Protect Outdoor Workers," Sandy Smith, Jan. 8, 2014

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