Cold Stress

Winter weather can bring severe cold stress to infrastructure as well as humans. Winter storms, high winds, snow, sleet, ice, and dangerously low temperatures can damage infrastructure as well as humans and animals. Pipes may burst and roadways may be damaged. Cars, buses, and other means of transportation may fail more often than normal. Frequently, there is a loss of heat and power, and communications and roads may be blocked causing people to be isolated from essential services. Structures may be damaged by fallen trees and downed wires. There is often a sharp increase in traffic accidents and falls leading to serious and even fatal injuries.

People in homes where the electricity and/or heat have been shut off may suffer from an exacerbation of their diseases because of the disturbance in the normal environment. This is especially true of the elderly, the very young, and chronically and acutely ill individuals who have exceptional trouble with the cold. The dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning increases substantially because in trying to keep warm, people may use poorly functioning or unvented furnaces, generators, and gasoline, propane, or charcoal-burning units and wood-burning stoves. This leads to over 500 deaths a year from carbon monoxide poisoning and thousands of people going to the emergency room for treatment. Serious house fires may occur as a result of the improper use of these heating and cooking appliances.

Large areas of communities may be affected by severe winter storms which cause problems exceeding the capacity of first responders and other personnel to respond to the emergency needs of the individuals, thereby compounding the potentially hazardous situations.

Humans and animals are affected when there is a substantial drop in temperature below normal and the wind speed increases or there is immersion in cold water. The body can lose heat faster than it can be replaced and will over time use up all the stored energy of the individual. This may cause the body temperature to be lowered in an unnatural way and may cause tissue destruction and death.

Best Practices for Extreme Temperatures

  • • Determine the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those individuals who are most vulnerable to extreme temperatures, especially the elderly who typically are most affected, and the isolated.
  • • Establish a plan to have volunteers or governmental employees visit and assess the needs of the most vulnerable individuals and provide supportive services during times of extreme temperatures.
  • • Coordinate the efforts of all governmental and voluntary service providers to take care of those in need while working efficiently.
  • • Provide a heat alert and response system to inform the public of the potential danger of present and near future heat events.
  • • Provide bottled water and cool-down places for individuals who are vulnerable to excess heat.
  • • Have public health personnel visit all places where the poor and chronically ill congregate or live and take whatever actions are necessary to cool these individuals down.
  • • Have the homeless seek cool areas for shelter, especially during the hot part of the day.
  • • Provide interpreters for areas where English is not the primary language in order to make people aware of the hazards of excess heat and what to do to resolve the problem.
  • • Instruct individuals to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • • Teach individuals to slow their pace of activity and seek shady and cool areas as frequently as possible.
  • • Regulate the environment of infants and young children to allow minimal exposure to high temperatures.
  • • Teach the sick, the chronically ill, the elderly, the very young, and the overweight to reduce their activity level in hot environments.
  • • Avoid hot and heavy foods and/or drinks.
  • • Do not leave infants, children, or pets in cars or other vehicles.
  • • Watch all individuals within the hot environment carefully to determine if they have symptoms of dizziness, nausea, confusion, unconsciousness, rapid heartbeat, red skin, or high blood pressure and then take effective medical-based actions as needed.
  • • Acclimate all young workers especially in hot environments for short periods of time while observing their physical condition and make appropriate changes in time spent within the environment and encourage appropriate cooling techniques.
  • • Provide appropriate cold weather and storm alerts.
  • • Prepare for winter storms by stockpiling salt, sand, snow-removal equipment, snow shovels, heating oil for isolated facilities or homes, quantities of mandatory medicines, adequate warm clothing and blankets, necessary food and water, and appropriate shelters for pets.
  • • Provide carbon monoxide detectors in the basement and on every floor in the structure.
  • • Evaluate all heating devices to make sure that they are properly vented and cleaned on a regular basis, at least annually.
  • • Never use gasoline or propane grills or charcoal inside of the house or structure for warmth.
  • • Do not warm up the automobile in an enclosed garage.
  • • Do not use generators in the home or garage.
  • • Wear appropriate insulated clothing when working outdoors in severe weather.
  • • Protect ears, face, head, hands, and feet in extremely cold weather.
  • • If someone has been submerged in cold water, immediately remove wet clothing, warm the body tissue, and take the individual to first aid facilities or an emergency room.
  • • Have immediately available clean dry loose clothing, blankets, chemical hot packs, and thermoses full of hot liquids to be used to protect exposed individuals.
  • • Move individual into a warm locations as quickly as possible.
  • • Work in extremely cold temperatures for limited time periods with periodic substantial breaks in warm areas.
  • • Do not drink any alcohol in either extremely hot or extremely cold environments.
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