Q Why do outdoor workers get trench foot in the winter?
Trench foot (also called immersion foot) occurs when a person’s foot is exposed to wet and cold conditions for an extended period of time. While the term was coined due to soldiers suffering the condition during WWII, any person who works outdoors in cold environments can suffer from trench foot. In the winter, the most likely victims include sanitation workers, snow cleanup crews, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and any other person working overtime without a break to remove their shoes.
When workers are outdoors in waterproof shoes, their feet continually sweat and remain damp. Wet feet lose heat rapidly, so the body attempts to prevent heat loss by constricting the blood vessels in the feet and slowing circulation. If the feet are not dried and warmed quickly, the skin tissues of the feet will begin to die due to a lack of oxygen. Toxic materials build up in the bloodstream, leading to gangrene and even possible amputation if circulation is not restored.
Employers have a duty to protect outdoor workers from cold-weather injuries, including trench foot. Here are just a few precautions an employer should take to prevent immersion foot injury:
- Schedule outdoor tasks to be performed at the warmest times of day
- Ensure that workers have regular breaks in warm areas
- Provide plenty of warm beverages to encourage hydration and circulation
- Relieve workers every two to three hours and rotate in new crew members
- Train employees on proper preventive measures, as well as first aid techniques
- Watch for signs of fatigue, dizziness, or other symptoms of cold stress
- Encourage employees to dress in layers and keep an extra pair of sock on hand
- Make sure employees are aware of the physical dangers of working outdoors in the cold
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