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Opinion by Chelsea Hampton

Agricultural Workers Face Cold Stress Hazards by: Chelsea Hampton

People of Wyoming are all too familiar with the harsh realities of cold weather, and ranchers and farmers are particularly at risk for experiencing cold weather illness and injury due to the nature of their work. As one of the main requirements of agricultural work involves braving the elements on any given day, farmers and ranchers must operate in a constantly changing environment. Weather conditions, wind velocity and temperature are just some of the ever-changing variables that exist in the outdoor work setting, which is why preparation and safety measures are essential.

Cold weather affects the body in many ways and even subtle changes in temperature can have an impact. An overarching term used for illnesses resulting from cold temperatures is cold stress, which includes conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite. When body heat is rapidly lost and core temperature begins to drop, this puts a lot of stress on the body’s ability to function. Certain populations, such as older adults, infants and persons with pre-existing health issues, may be more vulnerable and susceptible to complications caused by cold weather. Individuals with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions should be especially cautious when working in cold temperatures and consult a physician about additional health risks. 

Hypothermia is a fairly well known cold weather illness, which normally occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and lower. Frostbite involves skin tissue actually freezing and can result in permanent damage. Frostbite typically affects exposed extremities such as the hands, face and ears. 

Perhaps less well-known are the cold-related conditions referred to as trench foot and chilblains. While both conditions affect skin tissue, trench foot often occurs because of prolonged exposure to both cold and moisture. With trench foot, the continuous exposure of the feet to wet, cold conditions can lead to numbness, swelling, blistering and even gangrene. Chilblains are similar to frostbite in that they usually affect extremities, and the small blood vessels in the skin are damaged after repeated exposure to cold. The damage caused by chilblains can result in redness, itching and inflammation.

When the body’s ability to maintain its core temperature becomes compromised, cold weather can ultimately impact cardiovascular health, the respiratory system and even cognitive functioning. For individuals working outdoors, this means that work productivity and safety can suffer when the cold becomes too much. Even on a “warmer” day, say, when temperatures are in the high 30s, all it takes is a little wind chill to reduce mobility and dexterity for outdoor workers. High wind speeds can easily create conditions that lead to hypothermia and other cold weather issues. Moisture and humidity are also important elements to be aware of, as these can create additional hazards in the outdoor work environment.

Fortunately, there are many steps agricultural workers can take to avoid cold-related illness and injury.

Dress warmly and with layers. While this may seem like common sense, it is not often followed adequately. Clothing should provide enough insulation while still allowing for plenty of movement.

Be sure to protect extremities. Wear gloves, a hat, ear coverage and even a facemask if needed. Durable, waterproof footwear is essential, and make sure that both gloves and footwear provide non-slip grip. Also, pack extra socks and a blanket in a portable emergency kit. Always try to keep feet as dry as possible and make sure footwear does not hinder circulation.

Take breaks in warm shelter. Take breaks frequently in a heated area, and take time to sufficiently warm up. Eat periodically and drink warm liquids, but avoid fluids that are dehydrating.  

Establish a line of communication. When working outdoors or traveling long distances, make sure someone is aware of where you will be. Have some type of communication device available, such as a cell phone, walkie-talkies or two-way radio. As cell phone reception may not always be available in rural areas, radio devices are a good alternative to maintain a line of communication. Also, when traveling anywhere, make sure cell phones are fully charged and pack a portable charger. 

Bring along hand warmers and/or portable heat sources. There are a variety of portable and pocket hand warmers available for outdoor workers. As cold temperatures can interfere with dexterity and accomplishing work tasks, this type of heat source is ideal for providing instant warmth. There are also warming inserts for feet to provide additional extremity protection.   

Get tasks done quicker. In particularly cold or poor weather, have someone provide extra help to get tasks done. This has many advantages in that it can reduce physical workload, risk of injury and illness and time exposed to cold temperatures.   

Winterize vehicles and work equipment. Make sure vehicles have had proper safety and maintenance inspections and are ready for cold weather. Work tools and equipment should also be inspected and stored in a dry area. Tools and machinery should be equipped with insulated and/or non-slip handles. 

Clear slippery surfaces. Entries and walkways should be cleared of ice and snow as much as possible, and salt or sand should be used frequently.   

Educate self and others on cold weather dangers. Learn more about cold weather hazards, prevention and symptoms of illness. Know how to recognize signs of hypothermia, frostbite and other types of cold stress. Be smart about working outdoors and take preventative measures to avoid illness and injury. 

There are many resources available on this topic, and AgrAbility has information available related to cold weather and agriculture. Below are some helpful resources that address a variety of cold weather issues! 

For more information, visit uwyo.edu/agrability/fact_sheets/preventing_cold.pdf, agrability.org/Online-Training/archived/index.cfm or cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress. Visit Wyoming AgrAbility at uwyo.edu/agrability