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How to Prevent Frostbite on the Job Site

Dec. 1, 2023
Tips to prevent frostbite damage to workers' toes, fingers, or facial features.

Severe frostbite can result in the loss of toes, fingers, and facial features. Most of us aren’t at risk of that while on the job, but many electrical workers experience minor and moderate frostbite. The most noticeable effects are usually temporary, but permanent damage can occur. For example, repeated minor frostbite to the fingers can cause capillary damage and nerve damage.

Permanent damage or not, minor to moderate frostbite is uncomfortable and sometimes painful. The toes, fingers, ears, and nose are the most vulnerable.

Some tips to protect your toes:

  • Wear thermal socks. These do not need to be extra thick — if they are too thick, they may reduce blood circulation in your feet. It’s the weave and the material — not the thickness — that makes a sock thermal (although a thicker thermal sock will be more thermal).
  • Wear thermal boots. If your work will take you outside for short periods, have a pair of thermal boots to wear while outside. If your work is mostly outside, you need at least two pairs of such boots (never wear the same boots two days in a row, as the cushioning needs more than a day to decompress).
  • Watch where you walk. Obviously, you don’t want to get your feet wet by stepping into puddles, but if you step in snow, that can also go down into your boot and get your socks wet.
  • Stay moving. Stomping your feet or just walking will help keep the blood flowing. If you simply stand on cold cement, it’ll suck the heat right out of your feet.

Some tips to protect your fingers:

  • Work in gloves, travel in mittens. Where you don’t need dexterity, wear mittens. Ultra-warm mittens with liners allow you to adjust how warm your hands are, so you avoid sweating from too much insulation or freezing from too little. And while regular work gloves are better than bare hands, winter work gloves are readily available. Wear those.
  • Avoid putting your hands on heat sinks. Avoid touching outdoor metal, because it’s a great conductor of heat. Even with gloves on, extended contact with metal in cold temperatures can result in frostbite.
  • Stop when cold. When your hands get cold, come to a good stopping point in short order. Go inside, and warm up your hands. Warm up your gloves, or get another pair. What if your hands feel cold and then after a while feel okay again? Your hands are probably too numb to feel the cold. Drop what you are doing, and go inside. Take your gloves off, and put your hands on a heat source, even if that’s just your arm pits.
  • Stay moving. If you’re sitting or standing in the cold, periodically clap your hand together to stimulate circulation.

Some tips to protect your ears:

  • Wear a winter hard hat liner with ear flaps.
  • If you don’t have a winter hard hat liner, wear ear muffs or something similar to keep the cold air off your ears.
  • If you get a tingling or burning sensation in your ear tips or lobes, go inside and apply something warm to them. Don’t rub them vigorously to warm them up, as you may damage tissue.

To protect your nose, wear something over it. Options include a nose warmer, ski mask, or a standard dust mask. Some people apply petroleum jelly to their nose; it has a proven track record.

About the Author

Mark Lamendola

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