by Sally Colby
Whether or not the Farmer’s Almanac is accurate, we can count on at least several stretches of extreme cold on the east coast this winter. Those who work outside are usually prepared for cold, but it’s easy to go outside for what seems to be a simple chore and become caught in severe weather for an extended period of time.
Farmers know that working in the rain in 40 degrees can be worse than attempting the same task at 20 degrees with sunny skies. But add a bit of wind, and the scenario becomes complicated in a different way. Although most farmers are well aware of how to dress appropriately, it’s easy to become focused on a task and become chilled before realizing what’s happening.
The newest winter clothing is easy to layer, and layers are the secret to keeping warm. The number of layers isn’t as important as composition and fit. Each layer should fit well; loose enough to allow freedom of movement but snug enough that the item isn’t baggy. Down clothing can be appropriate if it isn’t bulky or too warm for normal outdoor activity.
The layer closest to the skin should be fairly thin, and made of wool, silk or synthetics designed to wick moisture. Cotton thermal is suitable for milder temperatures or for strenuous work. One or two middle layers help retain inner heat and can be made of either wool, synthetic or a blend. The outermost layer will vary according to current conditions, but should cover the other layers thoroughly and provide protection against wind and precipitation. Ideally, the outer later should allow for ventilation so that the wearer can adjust it if the temperature rises or if he becomes too warm. The outer layer can pose a safety hazard if there are torn pieces that could be caught in machinery, so make sure clothing is in good repair.
Insulated coveralls are a good alternative for many outdoor workers, and provide good protection against cold and wind. However, because coveralls are usually heavily insulated and provide full-body coverage, fewer under-layers are required. Be aware of becoming overheated when wearing coveralls, and make sure they are dry, both the inside and outside, prior to putting them on.
Winter is the time to replace the cap from the seed company with a good hat that covers the entire head and ears. Knit hats lined with polar fleece are warm but lightweight. Earmuffs or a headband worn under the hat help keep sensitive ears warm. Neck warmers, or gaiters, help bridge the gap between the collar of the outerwear and the face, and can be pulled up over the face if necessary. Full-face, pullover masks, perhaps with a hat added, are appropriate for extreme cold and windy conditions.
Gloves should be appropriate for the tasks that the worker will be performing, with options to change to more suitable gloves as needed. For example, a worker might start out with a good pair of lined leather gloves, then switch to waterproof gloves for a task working directly in water or in damp conditions. Wet gloves should always be exchanged for a dry pair as soon as possible. Glove liners help keep fingers warm, but it’s important that they fit well – snug but not tight – and that the outer gloves fit properly over the liners.
The warmest socks are made of wool or wool blends, and should fit so that feet are not constricted. Boots for normal outdoor work should be suitable for the task, and fit properly to allow toes to wiggle. Waterproof boots often feel cold, so if those are necessary, use sock liners to gain extra warmth. Be sure that boots are free of holes and worn spots, and have the proper soles for the task.
Everyone on the farm team should be aware of the signs of hypothermia. Early signs include decrease in energy (feeling excessively tired), lack of coordination and shivering. Workers may think that they are simply tired, but continuing to work during early hypothermia is dangerous and can lead to preventable accidents. Anyone feeling the early signs of hypothermia should go to a warm building, remove the outermost layer of clothing and any wet clothing, and use added clothing or a blanket to get warm. If inner layers of clothing are damp, it’s important to remove those as soon as possible and replace with dry items. A warm beverage may speed up the warming process.
Learn the early signs of frostbite and take steps to prevent this potentially dangerous condition that can occur without warning. Frostbite is frozen skin, and can occur when the skin is exposed to temperatures below 30 degrees F. A combination of cold and wind increases the risk. Several other factors contribute to frostbite, including clothing that is too tight, working without adequate clothing, touching extremely cold surfaces such as ice or metal, and staying outside in extreme conditions for extended periods of time. Conditions such as diabetes, dehydration and exhaustion can increase the risk of frostbite.
Frostbite can affect protected extremities such as fingers and toes, and also affects exposed skin such as cheeks, chin, ears and nose. Although frostbitten skin often becomes either pale or bright red during the early stages, there’s a good chance it’s either hidden by clothing or the person is unaware it’s happening, so it’s important to recognize how frostbite feels.
Signs of frostbite include a dull ache in the affected body part, tingling, and/or numbness. If frostbite is suspected, it’s important to warm the affected area slowly and gently. Resist the temptation to rub the area, which can cause damage to sensitive tissue. Warm water soaks can be used for fingers and toes. Wrap affected areas in a warmed, soft cloth but don’t use a heating pad.
Although the advent of good, waterproof boots has reduced the incidence of trench foot, those who work outdoors in winter should be aware of what causes it and how to prevent it. Trench foot is the result of prolonged exposure of the feet to wet conditions, and the early signs can mimic those of frostbite: a tingling or burning sensation, numbness or pain. Severe cases may result in blisters, dead tissue and severe skin damage.
Workers whose shoes or boots become wet, in winter or any other season, are at risk for trench foot if the feet are not dried and cared for immediately. If feet become wet due to extended periods of work in snow, water or damp conditions, it’s critical to remove wet footwear and socks as soon as possible, clean and dry the feet and warm them in warm water soaks. Always wear clean, dry socks and make sure shoes and boots are thoroughly dry between uses.