OSHA Issues Cold Weather Alert for Workers

With much of the nation in winter’s icy grip, OSHA is reminding employers everywhere of the hazards of cold stress, frostbite and hypothermia in the workplace.

A winter storm resulted in power outages for more than three weeks in parts of the Midwest last month. Just as some areas were recovering, they have been hit with yet another major winter storm.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that can be severely injured by the cold even at temperatures as warm as 50 degrees. If the body gets too cold, it can’t warm itself and the person experiences cold stress. Cold stress is a less serious form of hypothermia. Even though it is less serious, cold stress can still cause death in severe cases.

While outdoor workers are at greatest risk for injury due to cold, almost any worker can be in danger this time of year.

The risk of injury or permanent damage due to cold can be greatly reduced by taking a few simple safety measures. Workers should dress appropriately for the weather, in layers and avoid becoming wet, especially in windy conditions. They should take frequent breaks in a warm area – indoors, or in a heated vehicle, is ideal. If that is not possible, workers should take breaks out of the wind, and drink warm beverages.

Outdoor workers should avoid alcohol and caffeine, which actually diminish the body’s ability to warm itself. Instead, they should drink warm – not hot – beverages such as cocoa and broth. Warm meals rich in carbohydrates are recommended.

Cold stress is the result of a body’s inability to warm itself. As the body gets cold, more energy is required to keep an even core temperature. The body works harder to maintain a healthy temperature. All the body’s effort goes into warming the internal organs, and blood is drawn away from the outer extremities. This leaves the outer extremities like hands, feet, arms, and legs at risk of frostbite. Fingers, toes, the nose and ears are at greatest risk of frostbite.

Cold air, water and windy conditions draw heat away from the body compromising worker safety. Older workers are at a higher risk of experiencing cold stress because the body heats itself less efficiently as it gets older. Some medications interfere with the body’s ability to produce heat. People who take sedative, anti-depressants, or tranquilizers should be aware that they have a higher risk of experiencing cold stress.

Wind chill can make a deceptively moderate temperature into a dangerous environment. Wind chill is the term used to describe the combination of wind speed and air temperature. The greater the wind speed, the colder it will be. Skin will always react to the temperature it feels like outside, regardless of what the thermometer says.

Mild forms of cold stress are easily treated. Move to a warm area and stay active. Remove damp clothes. Drink warm caffeine-free fluids to increase metabolism and raise internal temperature. Do not drink alcohol. Severe cases can lead to hypothermia and may require an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Cold stress can be avoided by dressing appropriately. Outdoor workers should always wear a layers and a hat to help the body keep itself warm.

OSHA, the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recently issued an alert concerning worker safety issues during damp, cold weather, including Trench Foot.

Many modern workers have never even heard of Trench Foot, a disease named during the First World War. During that conflict, soldier’s feet were immersed in cold water for long periods. This caused itching, burning and blisters, similar to but less severe than frostbite. It is a sign of cold stress, which is when the body has great difficulty warming itself.

Worker safety is threatened by Trench Foot, as winter weather tends to be very cold and damp. Working outside in windy or wet conditions can put people at risk of cold-related injury and illness.

Since many jobs require workers to remain out in the cold for long periods of time, it is important to take precautions. Dressing warmly is a must. Cover the extremities, and wear layers that fit close to the body. Staying dry is also important. Contact with cold water can make it harder for the body to maintain a warm temperature. Failure of the body to keep warm is called cold stress.

In extreme cold, as in extreme heat, employees should always work in pairs, so they can keep a watchful eye on each other.

If an employee is experiencing cold stress, get them to a warm area. Provide them with warm dry clothing. It’s wise to give them a warm drink, however coffee, tea, or hot cocoa, is not a good idea. This is because of the caffeine, which can actually slow warming. In severe cases, call an ambulance immediately. Medical professionals will assist the person properly.

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4 Thoughts on “OSHA Issues Cold Weather Alert for Workers”

Scott Powell

May 8, 2010 at 7:00 am

I’m looking for the regulations regarding the proper temperature to be working INDOORS … I work in a computer environment and the room where I sit for 8 hours is approximately 55 degrees. Is this acceptable?


May 8, 2010 at 10:10 am

Hi Scott! This sounds very uncomfortable, but it is legal. Unfortunately, there are no specific OSHA regulations regarding the temperature for an indoor workplace. Some foodservice employees work in giant freezers the size of warehouses, that are kept at 0 degrees. Others, such as mechanics and welders, work indoors but without heat or air conditioning. If the outside temperature is 10 degrees, their workplace is 10 degrees. All of these are legal under OSHA standards. OSHA intervenes only if the employees are literally in danger of injuries such as frostbite or hypothermia. Even in those cases, OSHA might require the employer to provide warm drinks or protective clothing, but not necessarily to increase the temperature.

In your case, it sounds like the employer might have a valid reason for keeping the computers so cold. And while this is very uncomfortable, unless you are standing in water, 55 degrees is not a risk for hypothermia. You can certainly file a complaint with OSHA and ask them to inspect. But probably they will find no worker safety violation. Our suggestion is simply that you dress as warmly as you have to, even to the point of wearing gloves if necessary. HTH, and thanks for reading the blogs!~ Amelia


January 6, 2015 at 11:28 pm

Can i refuse to work outside in below freezing tempatures?


January 9, 2015 at 2:50 pm

I work at a bar & restaurant. It is a cold snap; 39* is the warmest it been. We have closed the downstairs part of the restaurant, but I have to still come in. Just me; alone. That means I can not leave my station for any reason & no one ever comes to see if I need a break. This outside bar is also in a windy spot, and in a wet claimant so it feels colder. All the cooler and drains leak, so I am standing in water. This manager and I don’t see eye to eye; so he is making me work tonight. The rest of the week they kept it closed, even on warmer nights. We do hAve outdoor heaters down there, but the three of them are for the guest and provide the staff zero heat. My question is: at what point is this illegal and or u safe work environment? What can I do here

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