Protecting Ourselves from the Cold

On the surface, talking about how to shovel and dress properly for cold-weather work, chores and play seems unnecessary – after all, we’re grownups and it’s not our first winter rodeo. However, it’s amazing how many millions of Americans end up in emergency rooms across the country every year suffering from show-shoveling-related back and shoulder injuries, frost bite or hypothermia.

While winter drives many people indoors to weather the deep freeze and shorter days, the season also abounds in natural beauty best appreciated while outside walking or hiking, sledding, skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, ice fishing, working in the yard, or whatever floats your toboggan.  And of course, there are those pesky winter storms and cleaning up the driveway, decks and sidewalks.

When it comes to winter comfort, health and safety, there are a few basic rules always in vogue: dress appropriately, know our limitations, and use common sense. No matter the recreational activity, work or task, take appropriate measures to protect yourself. That includes dressing for the weather, making sure we’re properly hydrated, wearing sunscreen, and always respecting Mother Nature.

Dress for Comfort and Safety

Dressing in layers and wearing the right types of materials are critical for keeping ourselves warm in the cold weather. But when planning our outdoor wardrobe, moisture management is also an important consideration. To keep the body warm during high-energy activities, clothing should transport moisture away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. Also, look for garments made from the new stretch fabrics for better fit and performance.

Cotton is a poor choice for insulation, because it absorbs moisture and loses any insulating value when it gets wet. Instead, moisture-wicking synthetics, which move moisture away from the skin and stay light, are the best choice for working outdoors or for active winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, hiking or climbing. Not only do synthetic fabrics wick moisture away from the skin, they dry quickly and help keep us warm in the process.

The next layer should be a lightweight stretchy insulator, such as a breathable fleece sweater or vest. The final part of our cold-weather wear should be a lightweight and versatile shell jacket. Fabrics like three-layer Gore-Tex allow companies to create shells that are ultra-lightweight while remaining waterproof, windproof, and breathable. For aerobic activities, a shell’s ventilating features are particularly important. Look for underarm zippers, venting pockets, and back flaps.

Always bring a hat and gloves, regardless of the weather or activity level. Proper foot protection is critical, as well – wear insulated and water-proof shoes or boots, and synthetic socks that won’t absorb sweat, or layers of socks for wicking and warmth. As with the rest of our clothing, synthetic materials work best for protecting us against the extremes. Look for fleece hats made with breathable fabric, gloves and mittens layered with Gore-Tex and fleece, and socks made of synthetic, moisture-wicking materials.

Avoiding Hypothermia and Winter Injuries

In cold weather, our bodies try to keep a warm inner (core) temperature to protect our vital organs. They do this by slowing blood circulation in our face, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The skin and tissues in these areas becomes colder. This puts us at risk for frostbite. If our core body temperature drops just a few degrees, hypothermia will set in. With even mild hypothermia, our brain and body don’t work as well. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.

Frostbite and hypothermia can occur at the same time. The early stage of frostbite is called frostnip. Signs include

  • Red and cold skin; skin may start to turn white but is still soft
  • Prickling and numbness
  • Tingling
  • Stinging

Early-warning signs of hypothermia include feeling cold, shivering and signs that the cold is affecting the body and brain, such as stumbling, mumbling and confusion.

We need both food and fluids to fuel our body and keep us warm. If we skimp on either, we increase our risk for cold-weather injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite. Eating foods with carbohydrates gives us quick energy. Even if only out for a short time, carry a snack bar to keep your energy going. If out all day skiing, hiking, or working, be sure to bring food with protein and fat as well to fuel you over many hours.

When shoveling or lifting outdoors, take a few minutes to stretch. Shoveling snow is a workout, so we need to stretch to warm up our muscles, similar to when we work out at the gym. Stretching before shoveling will help prevent injury and fatigue.

Also, push don’t lift. When we push the snow to the side rather than trying to lift the snow to remove it, we exert less energy and place less stress on our body. If you must throw snow or ice, take only as much as you can easily lift and turn your feet to the direction you’re throwing – don’t twist at the waist. Do not throw snow over your shoulder or to the side, and pace yourself. Shoveling snow is strenuous activity comparable to weightlifting while walking on uneven and unstable ground and wearing heavy-duty clothing.

Drink plenty of fluids before and during activities in the cold. We may not feel as thirsty in cold weather, but we still lose fluids through sweat and breathing. Bring an abundance of water or sports drinks when recreating outdoors, and try to avoid caffeine or alcohol – both actually dry us out, instead of hydrating, and alcohol lowers body temperature.

And finally, remember to wear sunscreen – the sun’s ultraviolet rays remain potent, even in the winter, and hydrating our skin with a UV-protective moisturizer will help protect us from wind and other elements.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!