How to

17 October 2016

Cold Stress in Cold Storage: Common Conditions, Symptoms & Treatment

For anyone working in a cold storage facility, cold stress, in one form or another, is a constantly looming threat. Failure to properly outfit and equip one’s self, or an improperly insulated or operated facility, can lead to some serious health problems.

Cold stress is the collective term for a number of cold-induced conditions. Most people are fairly familiar with some of these, such as hypothermia and frostbite, but many are unaware of how to properly react, even to the conditions of which they have some limited understanding. So, what are the dangers posed to cold store workers, how do they present, and what can we do to remedy them?


Although commonly associated with winter, as well as the arctic and alpine regions of the world, the majority of hypothermia cases actually occur during the warmer seasons of spring and autumn, as it only takes a relatively minor drop in core body temperature to be defined as hypothermic. If such minimal seasonal variation can have such a profound impact on the number of reported cases of hypothermia, the risk faced by cold store workers is undoubtedly significant without due care and attention.

The best course of action is to ensure that you are equipped with suitable clothing for the job. Gloves, thermals, a warm jacket and properly-insulated boots are a must in such environments; generally, the more insulation you can cram into your outfit, the safer and more comfortable you will be. Just make sure to stop shy of restricting your movement with overly puffy clothing. In most cases, your employer will provide suitable safety equipment, but you may wish to add a few extras to your work attire yourself.

When hypothermia does present itself, it carries with it some highly-recognisable symptoms. Becoming aware of these symptoms quickly and knowing how to properly react could be the difference between life and death. These warning signs include:
  • Shivering
  • Fatigue / Drowsiness
  • Disorientation / Loss of judgement
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty breathing
Upon recognising these symptoms, you must move quickly to counteract the onset of hypothermia. While mild hypothermia is treatable with relative ease, the lower the temperature drops, the worse the odds become. That being said, there are some relatively simple things you can do at this point in order to significantly reduce the risk of serious injury or death. Such counter-measures include:
  • Moving the victim to a warm room/environment
  • Removal of any wet clothing
  • Wrapping the victim, including head and neck, in a warm blanket or similar
  • Encouraging shivering
  • Applying CPR if the victim has no pulse
As a final note, be careful not to warm the victim too rapidly, as this can actually cause them more harm than good. If their condition appears severe, call the emergency services immediately.


Frostbite is a condition whereby layers of skin tissue physically freeze as a result of exposure to extreme cold, often from direct contact with materials such as ice, cold packs and bare metal surfaces. Most at risk are the extremities (fingers, toes, ears) but it can affect any body part in theory. Once damaged by frostbite, those tissues will be more susceptible to the condition in the future.

As severe cases of frostbite can cause the permanent damage of body tissues and nerves, and in some cases lead to amputation, a basic understanding of how to diagnose and provide basic treatment for the condition is vital for those who regularly work in cold environments such as cold storage facilities. Look out for the following symptoms:
  • Numbness
  • Blistering
  • Reddened skin, often presenting with pale patches and bruising
  • Waxy skin
  • Tingling or stinging of the affected area
In cases of severe frostbite, there will be little you can do without proper medical training. That being said, you can still apply some basic first-aid, which at the very least should prevent the condition from getting any worse. Basic treatment for frostbite includes:
  • Moving the victim to a warmer environment
  • Try not to move the affected body part any more than necessary
  • Steadily warm the affected body part (DO NOT RUB THE AREA, THIS WILL MAKE MATTERS WORSE)
  • Wrap the area in a warm cloth or immerse in warm (not hot) water
  • Avoid warming the tissue too fast, and do not warm if refreezing may occur
  • Call the emergency services

Trench Foot

Although commonly associated with the trenches of warfare, hence the terminology, trench foot is actually a condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions. It possesses many similarities to frostbite, although in the case of trench foot the tissue is damaged by a lack of oxygen and nutrients, rather than just the cold alone, and the condition is generally considered to be less severe than frostbite.

Although it is, as previously mentioned, considered to be a relatively mild condition in comparison to its counterparts, it should still not be left untreated as it can lead to severe complications if left to progress. Be on the lookout for the following warning signs:
  • A tingling, itching or burning sensation
  • Blistering
  • Cramps
  • Swelling
In cases of trench foot the emergency services are often, although not always, unnecessary, but you should still provide some basic treatment. Follow these simple steps to aid the affected:
  • Remove any footwear
  • Soak the feet in warm water, then dry and wrap in cloth bandages
  • Ingesting warm, sugary drinks will also help with recovery


Chilblains are caused by poor circulation as a result of prolonged exposure to cold environments, and typically presents as a series of small, itchy and uncomfortable swellings. It rarely leads to permanent damage, but as severe cases have been reported to result in bone fractures, the diagnosis and treatment of the condition is a skill worth having. The symptoms of chilblains include:
  • Itching
  • Inflammation
  • Blisters
  • Skin discolouration
Chilblains will generally heal naturally over the period of a few weeks if further exposure to the cold can be avoided. In cold stores, such exposure is somewhat inevitable to a certain extent, so try the following to speed up the healing process and prevent the condition from recurring:
  • Avoid scratching the affected area
  • Gently warm the skin
  • Apply corticosteroid cream to the affected area
While the basic first-aid information included in this article should be considered essential knowledge, and some of the aforementioned conditions are considered to be fairly mild, be ready to contact the emergency services should the need arise. Severe cases of cold stress will often require medical attention, and attempting to deal with such occurrences yourself could pose a significant danger to the affected individual. You will have to largely rely and judgement and common sense to know when the situation has progressed to such a point, but if you would rather be safe then a little extra research never hurt anybody.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.