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When the cold hits, outdoor workers need to be ready

As strange as it might seem, many people here in the Chicagoland area were more than likely grateful to step out of their front doors this morning into temperatures in the 20s. That's because the horror of last week's polar vortex -- the mass of arctic air that plunged southward into the central and eastern U.S. -- is still fresh in their minds.

This horror is probably particularly real for those men and women whose jobs forced them to work outdoors in the record cold temperatures and frigid winds. From emergency responders and airport personnel to utility workers and snow maintenance crews, these people are none too anxious for a repeat of the polar vortex.

However, it's important to understand that even though we may not reach that same level of cold again here in the Midwest for the remainder of winter, there is still a virtual guarantee that temperatures will once again plunge at some point over the next few months. As such, it's imperative that outdoor workers take the necessary steps to protect themselves from cold stress such as frostbite and hypothermia.

"When the body is unable to warm itself, cold-related stress may result in tissue damage and possibly death," wrote the director of technical support and emergency management for OSHA.

According to OSHA, four factors can lead to the onset of cold stress, including high velocity winds, cold air temperatures, air dampness and contact with cold water/surfaces. The agency also indicates that outdoor workers can protect themselves from cold stress by following a few basic tips:

  • Wear at least three layers of clothing for insulation, including an outer layer protecting against wind/precipitation that is still breathable, a middle layer of wool or a synthetic as these materials retain insulation even if wet, and an inner layer of wool, silk or a synthetic to wick moisture away from the body.
  • Wear a hat/hood and insulated boots.
  • Keep an extra set of clothes on hand to change into when the others get wet.
  • Monitor how your body is reacting to the cold and always go inside if necessary.

Are you an outdoor worker? What were your experiences during the polar vortex?

Those who suffer debilitating injuries on the job here in Chicago should strongly consider speaking with an experienced attorney about their rights and their options concerning workers' compensation.

Source: EHS Today, "How cold is too cold? Tips to protect outdoor workers," Sandy Smith, Jan. 8, 2014

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