The two most common environmental injuries to Canadian outdoor workers are, in order of prevalence, sunburn and frostbite. While it is possible to get sunburnt year round, frostbite is a concern only in the colder half of the year in most of Canada. Frostbite can be serious – if left untreated it can lead to the loss of fingers and toes – but it is possible to prevent frostbite, and treatment for early stage frostbite can be done at home or on the jobsite.
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is the medical term describing what happens when tissue (skin) freezes due to exposure to cold air.
Where does frostbite occur on the body?
Frostbite most commonly affects parts of the body that are exposed to the cold: nose, cheeks, chin, ears, fingers, and toes. However, it can affect any unprotected skin that is exposed to the cold.
What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?
There are three stages of frostbite – early, intermediate, and advanced – and frostbite can progress from early to advanced very quickly. Signs of early frostbite include a pins and needles feeling and a light yellow or white hue to the affected body part. As frostbite progresses to the intermediate stage, the skin becomes hard, is cold to the touch, looks waxy or shiny, and forms blisters as the skin thaws. Advanced frostbite is characterized by hard, cold skin, and the colour darkens to a blue or black hue. While the first stage of frostbite is painful, intermediate and advanced frostbite are often pointed out by someone other than the victim as the site has gone numb.
What should you do if you get frostbite?
If you think you have frostbite, first get out of the cold, then seek medical attention. Don’t try to treat frostbite yourself as many home remedies such as sitting in a warm bath can actually cause more harm than good. Thawing the frostbitten area too quickly can cause tissue damage, and is best done at the hospital.
How can you prevent frostbite?
Wear loose layers of warm clothing that covers your body when you are going to be outside. Tight clothing can actually increase the risk of frostbite as it prevents warm air from circulating. Your first layer should help keep you dry, your second layer should be insulating (think wool or fleece), and the top layer should protect you from wind and water. Having good quality mittens or work gloves, a hat that covers your ears, a neck warmer (not a scarf) to keep your chin warm, and warm socks and work boots will keep you warm. However, even the best clothes won’t keep you warm forever so keep track of the amount of time you’re outside and take frequent breaks to warm up inside.
Frostbite can be a serious health risk for people who work outside during the cold Canadian winter, but you can prevent it and treat it if it does occur.