In 2021, 33% of all workers in the U.S. were exposed to the outdoors while conducting work. One can assume the percentage of dairy workers exposed to the outdoors is much higher than 33%. With exposure to the outdoors comes environmental risks. How many times during the summer do you remind your family members and employees to stay hydrated and seek shade when working outdoors during hot weather? The prevention of heat stress receives a great deal of attention, and rightfully so, but it is important to not forget its counterpart, cold stress. I am aware that some of our readers may be at a lower risk than others for extreme cold weather conditions; however, if anyone understands the unpredictability of weather, it is farmers. I think we can all agree it is better to be prepared than caught off-guard.
What is cold stress? In dairy cattle, we tend to focus on preventing cold stress in calves because of their vulnerability to environmental temperatures. Depending on who you ask, calves experience cold stress once temperatures fall anywhere between 60°F to 50°F. Keep in mind, temperature is only one variable that causes cold stress conditions. Wind speed and precipitation also contribute to cold stress. In humans, we use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s wind chill chart to help us determine the true temperature our bodies experience when exposed to a specific temperature and wind speed combination. This chart is also helpful in helping us determine how long we can be exposed to a particular wind chill before frostbite may develop. For example, a person exposed to 0°F and 15 mph wind is at-risk for frostbite after 30 minutes of exposure.
Frostbite and hypothermia
Two cold-related ailments commonly arise during the winter months: frostbite and hypothermia. According to the National Weather Service, frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by extreme cold. It commonly affects the nose, fingers, toes and ears. The affected area will become numb and pale in color. Re-warming the affected area and seeking medical attention is advised. Hypothermia is a cold stress illness that should also be on your radar this winter. It occurs when your core body temperature falls below 95°F. Hypothermia sets in when your heat loss is greater than your heat production. Having wet skin or clothing during exposure to cooler temperatures imposes an increased risk for hypothermia. A person experiencing hypothermia will most likely shiver and appear confused and weak. Moving the person to a warmer location and replacing wet clothing will help restore the person’s core temperature. Once again, seeking medical assistance is advised.
Preventing cold-related illnesses and injuries is imperative. Before starting your work for the day, check the weather conditions and refer to the wind chill chart. Remember to dress accordingly for the weather. Layering clothing and keeping it dry are also important aspects of prevention. Although, avoid overheating because sweat build-up during exposure to cold weather can contribute to hypothermia. Keeping your hands, ears and face covered during cold weather are also good preventive measures. Medical conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes cause a higher risk for cold stress.
Training your employees and family members is one of the best prevention methods. The training should include a discussion about environmental conditions that can lead to cold stress, symptoms of cold stress, prevention of cold stress, how to help someone affected with cold stress and how to select proper clothing for their work environment. If you have been working in the dairy industry for a while, you might think these training topics are intuitive, but they are not.
As I mentioned in my previous article, "Keeping Silage Season Safe," I have three key safety rules. They apply to cold stress as well as silage safety.
- Use a “buddy system” when working outdoors during cold weather, if possible. I know it is not always possible, but a person experiencing hypothermia will have a much better prognosis if they have a buddy nearby who can assist.
- Rushed work is not safe work. Take the extra time to add another layer or two before you head out the door. Make sure you find your gloves and hat before winter hits your farm. Maybe even keep an extra pair in your truck.
- Always be aware of your surroundings. Take a look around your farm. Where would you (or your employee) go to warm up if you needed to? Are emergency numbers posted in case someone needed help? Do your employees and family members know where the first-aid kit is located? Do you have a first-aid kit handy? All of these questions are important.
Please keep these rules in mind when the first chill hits the air and you are looking to turn on the heater. Share the rules with your employees, your family, your friends … even your neighbor and the person behind you at the grocery store. I wish a productive and safe winter for all of you.