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Health and Safety: Watch out for frostbite, hypothermia

February 12, 2020  By the CCOHS

It’s been a cold winter with some parts of Canada plunged into freezing temperatures. This is bad news for outdoor workers for whom working in the cold can not only be hazardous to their health, but also life threatening.

Hypothermia and frostbite are the two most common cold injuries. Learn more about the health effects of cold stress and get some first aid tips that could help prevent permanent injury.

Frostbite is the second most common cold injury. Noses, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes are most often affected. The freezing constricts blood vessels, which impair blood flow and may cause permanent tissue damage. If only the skin and underlying tissues are damaged, recovery may be complete. However, if blood vessels are affected, the damage is permanent and could result in the amputation of the affected part.

First aid for frostbite

  • Seek medical attention.
  • If possible, move the victim to a warm area.
  • Gently loosen or remove constricting clothing or jewelry that may restrict circulation.
  • Loosely cover the affected area with a sterile dressing. Place some gauze between fingers and toes to absorb moisture and prevent them from sticking together.
  • Quickly transport the victim to an emergency care facility.
  • DO NOT attempt to rewarm the affected area on site (but do try to stop the area from becoming any colder) – without the proper facilities, tissue that has been warmed may refreeze and cause more damage.
  • DO NOT rub area or apply dry heat.
  • DO NOT allow the victim to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke.

Hypothermia (low body temperature) is the most common cold injury. Prolonged exposure to the cold causes the body to lose energy faster than it is produced, dropping body temperature. The sensation of cold followed by pain in exposed parts of the body is one of the first signs of mild hypothermia. As the temperature continues to drop, or as the exposure time increases, the feeling of cold and pain starts to diminish because of increasing numbness (loss of sensation). If no pain can be felt, serious injury can occur without the victim’s noticing it. Next, muscular weakness and drowsiness are experienced. Additional symptoms of hypothermia include interruption of shivering, diminished consciousness and dilated pupils. When body temperature reaches 27 degrees Celsius, coma (profound unconsciousness) sets in. Heart activity stops around 20 degrees and the brain stops functioning around 17 degrees.

First aid for hypothermia
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If any symptoms of hypothermia are present, immediately call for emergency assistance (911). The survival of the victim depends on a co-worker’s ability to recognize the symptoms of hypothermia. The victim is generally not able to notice his or her own condition.

  • Ensure that wet clothing is removed.
  • Place the victim between blankets (or towels, newspaper, etc.) so the body temperature can rise gradually. Body-to-body contact can help warm the victim’s temperature slowly. Be sure to cover the person’s head.
  • Give warm, sweet (caffeine-free, non-alcoholic) drinks unless the victim is rapidly losing consciousness, unconscious, or convulsing.
  • Quickly transport the victim to an emergency medical facility.
  • Do not attempt to rewarm the victim on a specific site of the body (e.g., do not use hot water bottles or electric blankets).
  • Perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if the victim stops breathing. Continue to provide CPR until medical aid is available. The body slows when it is very cold and, in some cases, hypothermia victims that have appeared “dead” have been successfully resuscitated.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.

This article is part of the Snow & Ice Week.

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