Working In Extremely Cold Temperatures

Working In Extremely Cold Temperatures

With winter approaching it is vital that every employer is taking the necessary precautions to protect their employees from having to work in extremely cold temperatures. Anyone who has ever had to experience living or working in a cold environment knows that the low temperatures can make dealing with everything harder. Your fingers begin to feel numb in the low temperatures even when under bulky gloves, or you start shivering at the sight of your breath hitting the icy cold air when working in extremely cold temperatures. The low temperatures do not just make you uncomfortable but if some basic precautions are not taken it could also pose some serious health hazards to you or your employees. Further complicating matters is the fact that it is easy to overlook or ignore the symptoms of many cold temperature related ailments. In some worse case scenarios this could also lead to tissue damage that is irreversible, or worse, death. So as an employer it is your responsibility to be aware of the health hazards that could affect your employees and ensure that sufficient heating is provided in the workplace.

How Much Cold Can The Human Body Stand?

Irrespective of the temperature of the surroundings around you, the human body tries to maintain a constant internal temperature of 98.6 degrees fahrenheit. If the internal body temperature drops even a few degrees below this temperature it could turn out to be life threatening. That is why for most of us the ideal working temperature is at least 16°C with 45% humidity. Now, if the nature of your work is  labour intensive then the ideal working temperature for your employees can be around 13°C because the body generates sufficient heat through the work.

It is also important to factor in the ‘wind chill’ element when you are calculating safe temperatures for your workers. The ‘wind chill’ factor takes into account both the wind velocity and the air temperature. For example, if the wind velocity is 35 miles per hour on a 40 degree day, then your workers are experiencing temperatures of 11°C and not 40°C.

What Happens To The Body In Extreme Cold Conditions?

The human body has developed many effective mechanisms to deal with extreme heat but not for cold temperatures. In cold temperatures the body tries to limit blood flow into the feet, hands and the surface of your skin by constricting the blood vessels. This way, not much body heat generated from the blood is lost via the skin into the environment. The only other defence that the body has under extreme cold conditions is to increase the body’s metabolism rate to generate excess heat.

Health Risks Posed Due To Extremely Cold Temperatures

  • Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when your skin and muscle tissues freeze due to excessive exposure to cold temperatures.  Frostbite usually occurs in the extremities i.e. your hands and feet. This is because your body keeps these parts of your body cold to conserve heat for the rest of the body. Frostbite can also occur to exposed skin on cheeks, ears and noses. It is possible to be affected by frostbite at temperatures below 30 degrees farenheit. However, the effects of wind chill can also cause frostbite at temperatures above the freezing limit.

The tissue damage caused due to frostbite can sometimes be irreversible which in rare scenarios can also lead to amputation. If the person is also suffering from hypothermia, then it is important to treat the symptoms of hypothermia first. Frostbite symptoms include:

  • Tingling in the exposed area.
  • A stinging sensation in the exposed area.
  • Aching sensation in the exposed area followed by numbness.

Massaging the exposed area could worsen the extent of the injury. Some severe cases of frostbite might also require hospitalisation.

  • Hypothermia

Hypothermia can be a potentially life threatening condition that occurs if the body temperature falls below the normal 98.6° to 95°. Initial symptoms include:

  • Shivering
  • Inability to perform complex motor functions
  • Mild confusion
  • Lethargy

Hypothermia can become even more severe if the body temperature continues to drop further. In such a state it won’t be possible for the victim to perform even basic motor functions. Sometimes victims could also fall into a semi conscious state and exhibit irrational behaviour and slurred speech.  This leads to the body entering into a state of hibernation which might cause the victim to lose consciousness. Complete heart failure is also possible in such a state. Victims of hypothermia require immediate medical treatment.

Managing Workplace Temperature

The HSE has outlined guidelines to help employers maintain ‘reasonable’ temperatures in the work place with the view of providing their employees ‘thermal comfort’. ‘Thermal comfort’ refers to a state of mind in which your employee neither feels too cold nor too hot at the workplace. Employers are legally required to provide for the following during low temperatures:

  • A working temperature in your workplace that is considered ‘reasonable’ which is usually at least 16°C.
  • Local heating where it is not possible to maintain a reasonable temperature in the workplace. For example, a cold manufacturing process.
  • Provision of thermal clothing for employees in workplace situations where the temperature cannot be maintained at a reasonable level.
  • Provision of break times and rest facilities where there is sufficient heating.
  • Using air heaters that do not discharge dangerous levels of fume into the workplace endangering the health of your employees.
  • Adequate space for workers employees in the workrooms.

Guidelines to ensure that thermal comfort is provided to workers in cold temperatures include:

  • Making provision for sufficient workplace heating.
  • Reducing the exposure to cold temperatures by implementing processes that reduce exposure to cold products or areas.
  • Providing workers with an insulated floor or special footwear if they have to stand on cold surfaces for long periods.
  • Providing the necessary protective clothing to help the workers deal with the cold temperatures.
  • Introducing systems to limit exposure to the cold temperatures. For example, shift rotation or flexible working hours.
  • Providing the employees with sufficient breaks to get a warm drink or to warm down in a heated area.

PPE or Personal Protective Equipment is considered as the ‘last resort’ when it comes to providing your employees with protection from the harsh cold temperatures. PPE’s lowers the body’s ability to evaporate sweat. Also, sometimes PPE can be made of heavy material which leads to excess heat generation within the body.

Warm Air Heating Can Be the Solution to All Your Woes

Warm air heaters warm the air in a particular space which in turn will provide sufficient heat to the workers located in that area. Think of a device like your air conditioner, but instead of distributing cold air it dispenses warm air.

Warm air heaters work by drawing air through a heat exchanger and then increasing its temperature. This ‘warm air’ is then distributed evenly throughout a space with the help of a fan. Before selecting a heating system it is important to ensure that the distribution of warm air throughout a space is even so as to maintain constant temperatures throughout that space. Look towards specialists like Benson heating when choosing a warm air heater for your workplace.

With regards to warm air heaters there are several choices of heat source such as gas or oil fired burner in which the burner is located within body of the direct fired heater or piping hot water into a central heating plant( for example, a boiler) or via an electric element.

Modern warm air heaters (direct fired) operate in a similar manner to condensing boilers to deliver a high level of efficiency.

Applications of warm air heaters include:

  • It is the most popular form of industrial heating and also compatible with majority of building types.
  • Extremely effective in workplaces which require one and a half air changes per hour or less and where the overall height of the building is less than 15m.
  • Ideally suited for buildings which require protection for sprinkler or stock systems.
  • Suitable for retail premises, showrooms, warehouses and factories.

Advantage of warm air heaters include:

  • Even distribution

Warm air heaters use a fan which draws air from the area where the heater is located. This air is then passed through a heat exchanger and evenly distributed throughout the area. Such even distribution of air is not possible through use of other heating systems. For example, radiant heating systems warm up objects that falls within its direct line of sight. Such a system can contribute towards uneven distribution of heat within the area.

  • Versatile Positioning

It is possible to mount warm air heaters on the wall, stand them on the floor or suspend them above a particular area. Thus it offers you great flexibility with regards to where you can place it in your workplace. Warm air heaters are also equipped with discharge heads to direct the flow of warm air.  Air heaters can also distribute warm air across a wider area by connecting the heater across the ductwork.