Cold facts of ranching life

Jan 4, 2013
by WLJ

Farmers and ranchers complete tasks in all types of weather conditions. Extreme weather conditions put agricultural producers at risk for heat-related and cold-related illnesses and injuries. Individuals working in extremely cold or wet weather can experience such occupational health conditions as hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot and chilblains.

The four environmental factors that cause cold-related illnesses are low temperature, strong and/or cool winds, dampness, and cold water.

The most dangerous factor in winter weather is wind chill, a measure of the rate at which skin exposed to the combined effects of wind and cold loses heat. When wind increases, the body loses heat at a faster rate, which causes body temperature to decrease.

Individuals generate body heat from food and through muscular activity and lose heat through convection, conduction, radiation and sweating. In general, the processes of generating and losing body heat are balanced, resulting in a constant body temperature. When a person’s body temperature drops below the normal temperature of 98.6°F, he or she may experience blood vessel constriction and decreased peripheral blood flow, putting the person at risk for adverse cold-related conditions.

Cold-related conditions

Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body is unable to produce heat and has used all its stored energy or is losing body heat faster than it can be produced. As a result, a person’s body temperature decreases. When a person’s body temperature drops below 95°F degrees, the heart, nervous system, and other organs can be adversely affected. The most common causes of hypothermia are exposure to cold weather and immersion in cold water.

Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, decreased energy, fatigue and loss of coordination. Symptoms of prolonged hypothermia include the early symptoms as well as dilated pupils, decreased pulse, shallow breathing, and eventually loss of consciousness.

First aid response for hypothermia starts with common sense; contact 911 or other emergency medical personnel. Other responses include finding a warm room or shelter and removing any wet clothing; drinking warm (not hot) beverages if available, careful that these do not include alcoholic or caffeinated beverages; and staying dry and warm with a blanket or additional dry clothing. If you are assisting a person with hypothermia, and he or she does not have a pulse, begin cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when skin tissue freezes and loses water, leading to the potential for cell damage. Skin can freeze at temperatures of 30°F and below, and wind chill can also cause frostbite. Fingers, toes, cheeks, nose and ears are the areas of the body most typically affected by frostbite.

Frostbitten skin may look white or grayish yellow and may feel cold, hard, and possibly waxy to the touch. Symptoms of frostbite include numbness, aching, tingling, and/or stinging in the affected areas.

For frostbite, first aid response includes finding warm room or shelter; avoiding the use of the affected area (if the hands or toes are frostbitten); soaking affected areas in warm (not hot!) water; and wrapping affected area in a soft cloth if possible. Do not rub the affected areas as that can cause tissue damage, do not use a heating pad, fireplace, or radiator for warming, and do not warm the affected areas if there is a risk of refreezing.

Trench Foot: Trench foot occurs when a person’s feet have prolonged exposure to cold (60°F or less) and wet conditions. This condition is similar to frostbite but is typically less severe. Symptoms include a reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin, and in severe cases, gangrene.

First aid response for trench foot involves removing shoes and wet socks, drying the feet, and avoiding walking as this could further damage the foot tissue.

Chilblains: Chilblains are painful inflammations in small blood vessels in the skin that result from exposure to cold temperatures. The areas most commonly subject to chilblains include the toes, fingers, ears and nose. Symptoms include redness, blistering, itching, inflammation, and ulceration in severe cases.

In cases of chilblains, avoid scratching affected skin. Slowly warm the skin and use corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling. Treat blisters as you regularly would.

Preventing cold-related conditions

There are several actions you can take to maintain a normal body temperature in cold and/or wet weather.

Clothing: Wear a minimum of three layers of clothing: an outer layer that breaks the wind, a middle layer that retains insulation, and an inner layer that allows for ventilation. Have a change of clothes readily available in case your garments become wet. Always protect your head and face because you can lose up to 40 percent of your body heat through your head.

Protect your feet from cold and dampness by wearing layered socks inside comfortable, insulated footwear. Protect your hands with insulated gloves (dexterity can be affected at temperatures below 59º F).

Environment: Use onsite sources of heat, such as air jets and radiant heaters, to provide warmth. Make sure that a heated shelter or vehicle is available for anyone who has experienced prolonged exposure to wind chill temperatures below 20°F. Reduce drafty or windy areas within buildings to shield work areas. If the temperature drops below 30°F, use thermal insulating material on the handles of your equipment. Avoid sitting or kneeling on cold, unprotected surfaces.

Personal safety: If you suffer from a medical condition such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, spinal cord injury, arthritis, and so on, you may need to take special precautions when working in cold environments because you could be especially susceptible to cold-related illness and injury. If you take prescription medication (heart medication, sedatives, and so on), check with your physician to determine whether you need to take any special precautions when working in the cold.

Never use alcohol or drugs when working in a cold environment because such substances increase heat loss and can impair judgment. Despite stories and old adages, alcohol does not warm you, but rather constricts blood vessels and actually makes you colder despite initial warming sensations.

Know the signs and symptoms of cold-induced conditions and how to respond appropriately with first aid. Seek warm shelter if you experience symptoms (heavy shivering, severe fatigue, drowsiness, and so on) of coldinduced illnesses. Avoid tasks that may cause excessive sweating. Maintain energy and hydration by drinking warm caffeine-free, nonalcoholic beverages. Stay in good physical condition.

Ranch managers’ responsibilities

If you are a farm or ranch manager, take the following precautions to keep your workers safe in cold and/or wet weather:

Allow workers to complete tasks at a comfortable pace and take extra breaks if needed.

In cold environments, be sure that workers always work in teams of two or more.

If a job needs to be completed outside, schedule the job for the warmest part of the day.

When possible, move outdoor jobs to an enclosed area.

Discourage workers from sitting or standing for prolonged periods during cold weather.

Allow workers to acclimate themselves to the cold before they begin a task. —Linda M. Fetzer, Pennsylvania State University Extension