Below zero

Below zero

Oymyakon, Russia, is reportedly the coldest inhabited place on Earth. During November the average temperature is a shivering -39°C. We grab our mittens and discover what challenges workers face in extreme cold

Ken Jennings, in his piece: “This is the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth”, reports: “The remote village of Oymyakon, in eastern Siberia, is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to the nearest city.” He adds that a monument in the town square commemorates the day in 1924 when the temperature fell to a record -71°C.

“The concrete statue of a bull in the centre of town marks the coldest temperature ever recorded in any inhabited place on earth,” Jennings continues. “Ironically, Oymyakon takes its name from the Russian phrase for ‘water that doesn’t freeze’. The settlement was born in the 1920s when winter herders would water their reindeer at a thermal spring there.”

Reindeers aside, workers who are exposed to extreme cold or work in cold and wet environments may be at risk of cold stress. This can lead to occupational illness and injuries such as hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – the United States federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness – defines hypothermia as an abnormally low body temperature that can affect your brain, making it difficult to think clearly or move well. It’s especially dangerous because you may not realise it’s happening and therefore won’t do anything about it in time.

Symptoms of hypothermia vary, depending on how long you’ve been exposed to the cold. The onset of symptoms may include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination and confusion. These may lead to blue skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and breathing, and loss of consciousness.

Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze and in severe cases can lead to amputation. “Symptoms of frostbite may include reduced blood flow to hands and feet, numbness, tingling or stinging sensations, and blueish or pale, waxy skin,” notes NIOSH on its webpage.

Trench foot, or immersion foot, results from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions and can occur at temperatures as high as 15,5°C if the feet are constantly wet.

NIOSH reports that wet feet lose heat faster than dry feet, and the body tries to slow down this heat loss by constricting blood vessels. “This causes the skin tissue of the feet to die. Symptoms of trench foot include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters and gangrene, where the foot turns purple, blue or grey.”

To combat this possibility, NIOSH provides some suggestions in its piece: “Preventing cold-related illness, injury and death among workers.”

In all cold environments you should:

• Train supervisors and workers to prevent, recognise and treat cold-related illness and injury.

• Report signs and symptoms of cold-related illness and injury to supervisors and medical staff immediately.

• Participate in joint management and employee safety committees.

• Carry extra cold-weather gear, such as a change of clothes, in case work clothing gets wet.

• Wear several layers of loose clothing for better insulation; take layers off if you begin to sweat and put them back on when you cool down. Inner layers should be wool or synthetic fabrics to wick away moisture; outer layers should be wind- and water-resistant.

• Avoid wearing wet clothes.

• Protect the ears, face, hands and feet by wearing hats, gloves, socks and boots.

In indoor environments you should:

• Install equipment to reduce drafts and condensation.

• Provide warm water or dry air heaters outside cold rooms for workers to warm their hands.

• Perform preventive maintenance on a regular schedule and make repairs if heating systems are not working properly.

• Rotate employees to different tasks after every break.

• Minimise work requiring manual dexterity in cold rooms.

• Provide glove alternatives for workers inside cold rooms (for example, glove liners or fingerless gloves to wear under plastic gloves).

In outdoor environments you should:

• Create a plan for assessing and acting on workplace hazards posed by sudden weather changes, such as falling temperatures or increasing wind speeds.

• Schedule normal maintenance and repairs in cold areas for warmer months when possible.

• Schedule “cold” jobs for the warmer part of the day.

• Ensure that workers travelling through or working in remote areas have appropriate cold-weather survival equipment (for example, emergency communications equipment such as a personal locator beacon or satellite phone).

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