Work in cold, damp conditions can be uncomfortable, even just for an hour or two. However, workers who prepare food for 8-hour shifts in refrigerated, 40°F food preparation and storage enclosures called cold rooms may feel extremely uncomfortable, have declining work performance, and be more likely to get hurt on the job.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes that current safety guidelines in technical standards apply to below-freezing conditions or outdoor work, but not to cold rooms. For this reason, cold rooms are an overlooked area of work-related cold stress, and employers and workers are unlikely to have guidance tailored to their particular needs.

NIOSH researchers have recently published a report that includes information on how to help protect employees who work in the unique environment of a cold room. Responding to a request to evaluate work conditions in cold rooms at a food-catering company for airlines, NIOSH found several causes of employee discomfort:

  • Air drafts.
  • Unworn gloves because of concerns that bulky gear would hamper dexterity for tasks needing fine hand and finger movements.
  • Insufficient training about how to work safely in a cold room.

To address these issues, the researchers suggested that the employer at the food-catering company take the following steps, which also might apply to other cold-room employers:

  • Install equipment to reduce drafts and condensation.
  • Give employees glove liners to wear under required plastic gloves.
  • Encourage employees to change out of wet clothes.
  • Rotate employees between warmer and colder areas.
  • Install hand warmers, such as those that blow warm air, outside of cold rooms.
  • Minimize work requiring manual dexterity in cold rooms.

Researchers also suggested that the food-catering company train employees how to avoid cold stress, and urge them to report and seek prompt medical attention for any symptoms they experience.

To learn more about cold stress, visit NIOSH Workplace Safety & Health Topics: Cold Stress.

To read the health hazard evaluation, go to Evaluation of Ergonomic Risk Factors, Thermal Exposures, and Job Stress at an Airline Catering Facility.

To read the full journal article, go to Recommendations to Improve Employee Thermal Comfort When Working in 40°F Refrigerated Cold Rooms.