The Magazine of American Municipal Power, Inc. and its Member Communities


Working in Extreme Cold Temperatures

4 min read



December 2017

Winter can be a magical time of year with celebrations, family gatherings, holiday lights and snow. Winter is also a time of year often with extreme cold temperatures. Many public power employees work outside in cold weather. It is important to understand that working in extreme cold temperatures can make it difficult for the body to regulate its temperature which can lead to medical conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite.

The most serious of concern is hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat. You can get hypothermia if you are exposed to cold weather or are immersed in a cold body of water, like a frozen lake or river. You can also get hypothermia if you are exposed to indoor temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) for an extended period of time. The risk of developing hypothermia increases if you are exhausted or dehydrated. If left untreated, hypothermia can be life-threatening.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Low core body temperature
  • Cold or pale skin
  • Confusion or drowsiness
  • Tiredness and low energy
  • Hyperventilation, and slow or shallow breathing

A person with hypothermia will usually stop shivering completely and may have slurred speech or poor judgment. They may try to shed their clothing even though they are cold. These are signs that their condition is deteriorating and requires immediate medical attention.

If you or someone you are working with is experiencing any of these symptoms it is important to call 911 for immediate medical care. The first 30 minutes after symptoms become clear are the most critical for hypothermia management.

While waiting for emergency services to arrive, do the following to assist with recovery:

Move the person out of the cold and into a room-temperature spot indoors. If going indoors is not possible, protect them from the wind with other clothing, especially around the neck and head.

Use towels, blankets or other clothing to protect them from the cold ground.

Don’t let them help with their own treatment, as this will only expend energy and worsen the condition.

Warm their core up gradually. Avoid re-warming them too quickly with a heating lamp or a hot bath. Instead, apply warm, dry compresses to the center of their body, neck, chest and groin area.

If you use hot water bottles or a hot pack, wrap them in a towel before applying them to these areas.

Do not attempt to warm their arms, hands and legs. Heating or massaging these limbs can cause stress on the heart and lungs, and could lead to other serious health issues.

Do not try to warm up the person by rubbing their body with your hands. This will only irritate the skin and cause shock to their body.

Give the person warm, sweet non-alcoholic drinks. Ask if they can swallow before you offer any liquids or food. Herbal tea that is caffeine-free or hot water with lemon and honey are good options. Sugar in the beverage can help to boost energy. You can also offer high energy foods like chocolate.

Avoid giving the person alcohol as it will slow down the re-warming process. Don’t give cigarettes or tobacco products. These products can interfere with circulation and slow down the recovery process.

Keep them warm and dry. Once their body temperature has increased and some of the symptoms have lessened, keep them wrapped in dry, warm blankets or towels until medical help arrives.

Frostbite is the freezing of body tissues (skin, muscle, bone) in extreme cold temperatures. At or below 59°F, blood vessels close to the skin start to constrict. This helps to preserve your core body temperature. In extreme cold or when the body is exposed to the cold for long periods of time, this protective strategy can reduce blood flow in some areas of your body to dangerously low levels. The combination of cold temperature and poor blood flow can cause tissue injury. Frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts farthest from the heart, and those with a lot of surface area exposed to cold. These areas include the toes, fingers, ears and nose.

Body tissue will not freeze until the outside temperature is at or below 28°F. If areas of tissue exposed to extreme cold begin to freeze, ice crystals form in some cells and fluid flows into these cells. This can cause the cells to burst. Additional damage can occur when the tissue is warmed again, because damaged blood vessels can leak fluid and proteins into tissue, causing swelling and blistering.

If you experience serious frostbite, see a doctor or go to an emergency room as soon as you can. If this is not possible, begin to warm the body part before visiting a doctor. However, it’s best to warm frostbitten areas under medical supervision to minimize tissue damage.

Some attempts at treatment can actually damage tissues. To protect against damage, take these precautions:

Do not massage the body part or rub snow on it.

Do not use water warmer than 110°F to warm the body part.

Do not use dry heat, such as a radiator or hair dryer, to warm the body part.

Do not thaw a body part if there is a chance it may freeze again. Keeping the part frozen for several hours will not cause further damage, but warming and refreezing will.

Do not immerse a person’s arm or leg in a warming bath if you suspect they may have hypothermia.

Once the skin has thawed, go to the hospital for professional treatment.

If you have any questions on this article or would like a member of our safety team to give you a more in-depth presentation on the above topics, please contact Kyle Weygandt LSP-MSA, AMP director of member safety, at [email protected].

To learn about safety training opportunities, visit the safety programs page of the AMP website.