The answer to whether you’ve already heard everything about cold weather personal protective equipment (PPE) is “probably.” So, let’s make it interesting and as newly promoted safety detectives, look at this from the body’s perspective. We will now embark on a cold case investigation to chip away at the frosty evidence provided by the human body.

To begin our investigation, we review some important facts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified over the past few years an eight to twelve percent higher death rate in winter months than in non-winter months. Even days that are only moderately cold can increase the risk of cold-weather death for workers, primarily those not acclimated to extreme weather or workers with compromised immune systems. National Weather Service (NWS) statistics for Arizona and California support this with a combined worker death total of six in just one year in moderately cold weather. Cold affects workers in all states with cold days made even colder by wind chill that combines air temperature plus wind speed, making it even more hazardous.

To protect from this frigid threat, OSHA requires the protection of workers from any hazard, including cold weather. They acknowledge the effects of cold on workers vary across geographical regions and highlight that all cold forces bodies to work harder to maintain a healthy core temperature. Let’s see what the body reveals to us.

Head and neck protection

How many times have we been told to wear a hat in winter to keep our body heat from escaping? Heck, even our cohort Sherlock wore a hat. Perhaps he already knew that wearing winter hats indeed saves 10 percent or more body heat that otherwise would be lost through our follicles. And what about that cold-induced headache? Our detective prowess unveils a correlation between the decrease in temperature and an increase in headaches, especially for those predisposed to migraines. Barometric pressure changes with extreme weather changes causes imbalances in brain chemicals like serotonin, resulting in migraines. 

As if migraines weren’t enough, we want to find out if winter neck and shoulder pain is tension from speeding after perpetrators or sleeping in the car all night doing surveillance. We poked around and found that cold weather directly affects our nervous system. When the neck and shoulders are exposed to cold, muscles tighten to constrict blood vessels and redirect flow to vital organs, keeping them functioning properly. The longer the muscles are cold and constricted, the more painful they feel. Wearing scarves or other neck coverings deters this pain.

Face and ear protection

Our case began with the head, but often the face is the first body part to aid our investigation of the effects of cold on the body. Rest assured, those rosy cheeks aren’t the result of aerosol carry-over from the paint of rebellious youth tagging the side of your warehouse. Instead, with our trusty magnifying glass, we clue in on red blotches that evidence damage to small blood vessels in our cheeks and face, a result of continued exposure to temperatures at or just above freezing. Though the color change normally goes away after warming, these red and itching villains often return with future exposures to cold weather if we do not protect ourselves with facial coverings like balaclavas.

    Having a hard time hearing some of the evidence being presented? That may be because of bony growths that have developed in your ears from continued exposure to cold. Often referred to as “surfer’s ear,” exostosis constricts the ear canal, making it harder for the ear to drain wax or water, which can lead to infections and/or hearing loss. The word on the streets is that donning earmuffs, a hat with ear coverings, or even pulling a collar up over the ears can help.

Arm, leg, and torso protection

Next, we surveil the arms, legs, and torso. We discover the body distributes blood to the torso and away from arms and legs to maintain the warmth of vital organs. Simultaneously, the body constricts blood flow to the skin so less heat can be hijacked by the environment and extend the time internal heat is maintained.

Winter clothes aren’t probable cause for warming. They’re meant to keep body heat from being extradited by the cold. Maintaining torso warmth with appropriate attire and light to moderate activity aids and abets blood flow to the limbs, keeping the whole body warm. 

Hand protection

Trying to decipher those fingerprints but can’t? It could be from frostbite caused by the freezing of the skin and tissues of the fingers. Frostbite can cause permanent damage, especially to the extremities, and in severe cases can lead to amputation. Frostbite risk is increased in workers with reduced blood circulation and among people who aren’t dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. Multiple layers of material that function together keep hands and fingers from becoming icicles. An outer shell of leather or synthetic material that protects from abrasions and injuries also deters water and wind from assaulting extremities. Inside, a layer of wool, fleece, or polyester insulation helps retain body heat and keep digits warm.  

Internal protection

Hypothermia occurs when the normal body temperature of 98.6°F falls below 95°F and the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Prolonged exposure to cold robs the body’s heat reserves, resulting in an abnormally low body temperature. The chances for hypothermia increase dramatically when mayhem like rain, sweat, or cold-water immersion join in. Once hypothermia sets in, the organs and body systems rapidly begin to shut down to preserve resources for the brain to continue to function as long as possible.

Foot protection

Like the hands, feet are susceptible to frostbite. They’re also at risk of trench foot, a non-freezing injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Prowling around at work with continually wet feet, even in temperatures as high as 60°F, can cause trench foot. Foot protection should be insulated, waterproof, durable, have great traction, and be comfortable to best defend against cold and wet weather collusion.

Now that we’ve explored our cold-weather PPE knowledge in a unique and fun way, we must remain serious about the magnitude of threat that cold can have on workers. This is especially true for those working outside most of their day, such as construction, utility, and agricultural workers. With a better understanding of how cold weather affects the body, we now have just cause to confront the winter ahead.