Jan. 4 2023 11:30 AM

When working outside in the winter is part of the job, it is important to wear the right gear and know the signs of cold stress before they start.

A new year has begun, and the days are getting longer again. With mild temperatures in the Midwest this week, it almost feels like the start of spring. A look at the calendar quickly brings us back to reality, though, because it is only January and surely there is more winter weather in store for us.

A recent podcast by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focused on protecting yourself and others when working in cold weather. For farmers, that certainly comes with the territory.

One danger the podcast focused on was hypothermia, which is an abnormally low body temperature that can affect the brain, making it difficult to think clearly or move well. The CDC said this is particularly dangerous because a person may not realize they are being affected by hypothermia and can’t react properly.

The symptoms of hypothermia vary, depending on how long a person has been exposed to the cold. Initial symptoms could include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination, or confusion. Subsequent symptoms are that the person does not shiver and has blue skin, a slow pulse, slow breathing, or loss of consciousness.

Frostbite is another risk for people working in cold temperatures. Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze and severe cases can lead to amputation. The CDC shared a list of symptoms that include reduced blood flow to hands and feet; numbness; a tingling and stinging sensation; and blueish or pale, waxy skin.

The third cold weather health risk highlighted by the CDC was trench foot, also known as immersion foot. This occurs when feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions, but it can also happen at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F if feet are constantly wet.

Wet feet lose heat faster than dry feet, the CDC explained. The body tries to slow down this heat loss by constricting blood vessels, but this causes skin tissues to die. Symptoms of trench foot are redness of the skin, leg cramps, numbness, tingling pain, blisters, and gangrene of the feet.

If working in cold conditions, the CDC emphasized three ways to reduce the risk of exposure to frigid temperatures. The first is to wear appropriate clothing. Wear several layers of loose clothing, as layering provides better insulation. Protect the ears, face, hands, and feet by wearing a hat, waterproof gloves, and boots. The CDC recommends keeping an extra change of clothes or a blanket nearby in case clothes get wet or an extra layer of protection is needed.

The next piece of advice is to limit outside time on extremely cold days. Of course, this is easier said than done, but perhaps some outdoor tasks could be rescheduled to a different day or at least a warmer time of day. Moving to a warm location during breaks can also help prevent prolonged exposure to the cold.

Finally, monitor your physical condition and that of the people working around you. The CDC podcast reminded that very low body temperatures affect the brain and make it difficult to think clearly or move well. Help yourself and others by preparing for cold weather working conditions and watching for signs that might indicate a health concern.

Abby Bauer

The author is the senior associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master’s degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.