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Date PostedAugust 15, 2012

White card update: Cold a Workplace Health and Safety Concern

The recent case involving a collapsed trench in which a worker was trapped has brought to light another valuable lesson for the construction industry. While trench safety is of utmost importance and prevention should always be the ultimate goal, accidents do happen as In this case and these do bring on serious consequences. The worker trapped in the trench was waist high in mud and contracted mild hypothermia.

Working in the cold is environmental condition that many workers have to deal with regularly, however in situations like this one the cold can present an even greater hazard. A common misconception is that old people are the only ones that can get hypothermia but that’s not true.

So What Are The Signs Of Hypothermia?

The one sign synonymous with coldness is shivering. It is the body’s way of keeping warm but shivering alone does not mean you have hypothermia.

So check for the following signs:

Confusion or sleepiness, slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing, weak pulse, change in behavior or in appearance, shivering or no shivering; stiffness in the arms or legs, poor control over body movements or slow reactions are all signs that a person may have hypothermia.

 What to do:

A body temperature a few degrees lower that the normal can be dangerous and may cause heart failure or an irregular heartbeat, heart problems or death.

If it is suspected that someone has hypothermia, use a thermometer to take his or her temperature. By shaking the thermometer first, you will ensure the thermometer starts at the lowest point.

Call emergency services if the person’s body temperature is too low and while waiting for them to arrive, keep the person warm and dry. You can do this by moving them to a warm place or by wrapping them iin blankets, towels or whatever is available on the construction site. Even body heat will help, so you or a co-worker can lie close to the person. You can give the person something warm to drink but not alcohol or caffeinated drinks.

Once taken to the hospital, it will be deduced whether the person has hypothermia using a special thermometer that can read very low body temperatures. Recovery depends on how long the person was exposed to the cold and his or her general health.

 How to Avoid Hypothermia?

Lowering of body temperature (also known as hypothermia) has an effect on the brain, causing erratic behaviour and numbness, muscular weakness and cramps. Therefore when operating dangerous equipment or working in a dangerous environment such as a construction site, the cold condition compounds the already prevalent hazards. For example a working operating a piece of heavy machinery or tool such as a jack hammer cannot afford to experience numbness or erratic behaviour caused by extreme coldness.  Hypothermia can occur when land temperatures are above freezing or water temperatures are below 37° C.

Obviously in emergency situations such as the worker who had a trench collapse on him, you cannot prepare beforehand but in generally cold climates you can.

• You may not always be able to warm yourself. Pay attention to how cold it is where you are by watching the local weather and dressing appropriately, especially when engaged in construction work which is typically outdoors.

• Check the weather forecasts for windy and cold weather. Try to stay inside or in a warm place on cold and windy days. If you have to work outdoors, wear warm clothes including a hat and gloves. A waterproof coat or jacket can help you stay warm if it’s cold, raining or snowing.

• Wear several layers of loose clothing when it’s cold. The layers will trap warm air between them. Don’t wear tight clothing because it can restrict blood flow which can cause the body to lose heat.

• When the temperature has dropped, avoid alcohol as drinks can make you lose body heat sometimes. Have warm drinks and take breaks out of the cold.

• Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin and body fat helps you to stay warm.

 Some workers with health problems may be more vulnerable to hypothermia than others. These include problems with your body’s hormone system such as low thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), health problems that keep blood from flowing normally (like diabetes), and some skin problems where your body loses more heat than normal.

Some health problems can make a worker get hypothermia more easily. One such health problem is severe arthritis because it makes it difficult for a person to put on more layers or get out of the cold.

Posted by Steven Asnicar


Steven Asnicar is regarded as a leader across many fields of industry. In particular, his specialisation across the health, infrastructure, construction, resource and utility sectors has seen him successfully change the dynamics of these industries through the introduction of new strategic, marketing, training and technical frameworks. Steven works closely with industry peak bodies such as Safework Australia, Australian Logistics Council, National Advisory for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment (NATESE) and the Council of Australian Governments in the development of new delivery standards and industry specific programs.

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