Offshore Injuries from Cold Exposure

One of the most dangerous challenges an offshore worker can face is cold exposure. While winter temperatures present the highest risk of cold-related injuries, seamen may battle with exposure in any season. On an offshore rig that may be dozens or hundreds of miles from shore, there is no escape from the water. Rain, sea spray, and the ocean itself can present a serious risk of cold exposure at any time of year. Consistent offshore wind only compounds the effects of this exposure.

Trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia are all potential hazards faced by maritime workers. In extreme cases, seamen may lose their lives if exposed to the cold for too long. Sudden immersion in cold water can lead to heart failure or drowning. Hypothermia can set in within about 30 minutes of exposure to cool water. Exposure to cold sea air will put offshore workers at the highest risk of injuries to the skin and extremities, like frostbite.

All of these injuries can be avoided with preventative measures like protective gear, clothing that can withstand cold and water, and safety practices that keep workers from prolonged exposure or falls overboard. It is the responsibility of maritime employers and offshore companies to develop, implement, and enforce safety standards that protect their crews in any weather.

Exposure to Cold Water

Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico may range from 53 °F in the winter to 85 °F in the summer—near the coast. Water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean as a whole range from 38 °F to 85 °F. Maritime workers who operate on fishing vessels and offshore oil rigs in the Arctic Ocean face a nearly constant surface water temperature of 28.8 °F, which is near the freezing point for seawater.

If a maritime worker is exposed to cool or cold water, they may be at risk of cold shock or hypothermia. According to the CDC, hypothermia can occur in any water temperature below 70°F. Cold shock can happen in water that is 60 °F or below.

Did you know that cold immersion is one of the leading causes of accidental death around the globe? In fact, cold water is one of the greatest stressors the body can be exposed to, as it takes heat away very efficiently. While hypothermia can set in after about 30 minutes of being in cool water, “cold shock” is an infamously dangerous issue that can cause a person immersed in cold water to suffer heart problems or even drown.

There are four stages of cold immersion:

  • Stage 1: The first 3 to 5 minutes of immersion in cold water will bring about a sudden drop in skin temperature, triggering a cold shock response. This can lead to uncontrollable breathing, an increase in blood pressure, and a strain on the heart. As the body acclimates, a person can stabilize and calm down.
  • Stage 2: Making it to this stage means a person has a higher chance of survival. The superficial nerves and muscles will be cooled down, especially in the extremities, which may lead to damage if not taken care of probably. After 10 to 20 minutes, staying afloat can become much more difficult.
  • Stage 3: After 20 to 30 minutes in the water, a person will become physically incapacitated so that they can no longer keep themselves afloat on their own. If they are holding onto an object, even this action can become impossible.
  • Stage 4: At the 30-minute mark, hypothermia can occur, but may take longer to set in. Hypothermia causes the body temperature to drop so low that a person becomes “hypothermic,” often leading to death.

In many cases, a worker will not suffer hypothermia unless they are in the water for an extended period. However, stage one of cold shock can be just as dangerous and even deadly for workers. Being in the water for just a few minutes could cause serious injuries and damage, including asphyxia, hypoxia, saltwater aspiration syndrome, and even drowning. Even an experienced swimmer may lose the ability to tread water as a result of cold shock.

Exposure to cold water can be prevented by implementing measures that prevent man-overboard incidents and training crews on how to rescue a fellow worker who has fallen overboard. Every second counts when a maritime worker has fallen into cool or cold water. Vessels and offshore rigs must be equipped with rescue devices, crews must be trained on how to alert others and carry out a rescue, and every worker on deck must be equipped with a personal flotation device (PFD) that is appropriate for their job duties and the risks they face.

Preventing & Conditioning Against Cold Shock

Since immersion in cold water can quickly transform into a dangerous—and potentially deadly—situation, companies must make sure workers are protected from falling overboard. Proper training, hazard marking, and precautions can stop this. If conditions are volatile, workers shouldn’t be expected to work in areas where falling off a vessel is likely.

While workers should be protected by their company, there are also steps they can take to prepare their bodies for immersion in cold water. Evidence suggests that some preparation can help a person stay alive after unexpectedly falling into cold water.

Conditioning against cold shock involves:

  • Having enough of an insulating layer of body fat in the limbs and torso
  • Learning to be immersed in cold water without succumbing to panicking or physical shock
  • Gaining the ability to resist or halt shivering after contact with cold water

The Silent Risk of Cold Air Exposure

While cold air exposure is not often as obvious as the danger of being submerged in icy waters, it can leave workers with significant injuries. Offshore workers need to protect their extremities in a cold environment, as the body will shut down blood flow to these areas when it starts to cool. The hands and feet suffer the most, as they don’t have the muscles to generate heat on their own and depend on the blood flow of the body to keep their temperature up.

If the cells in the extremities, such as fingers and toes, are destroyed, the blood flow may be blocked. This means that when these areas do warm up again, the blood will clot, so there is no way to remedy the damage to the extremities. The tissue is destroyed, which can lead it to “auto-amputate” or wither. This can require surgery to ensure there is no infection.

Even when freezing conditions don’t cause frostbite, damage can be done to the skin, tissue, and nerves, making it very painful and difficult for an individual to continue working in their current condition.

The best way to prevent cold air exposure offshore is by wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, boots, and other wet-weather gear. If such gear is not provided directly by the employer, they can reimburse workers or set other policies that enable crew members to get the right gear for their jobs. Employers must also train workers on how to identify the signs of frostbite, frostnip, trench foot, and other injuries caused by cold and wet work environments.


Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes. It’s dangerous because those suffering from it often don’t realize they are because of numbness. If left untreated, it can permanently damage tissues, nerves, muscles, and bones.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Cold skin with a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • A hard and waxy appearance of the skin
  • Red, white, blue, or gray/yellow skin
  • Decreased ability to move
  • Blistering
  • Swelling

Even when freezing conditions don’t cause frostbite, something called frostnip can occur. Frostnip is a mild version of frostbite that causes numb skin that tingles as it warms up again. Though frostnip doesn’t cause permanent damage, noticing it is happening is a sign that workers are at risk of developing complete frostbite.


Many offshore workers and their employers are aware of the risks of hypothermia while working in below-freezing temperatures. However, many in the maritime industry do not realize that this dangerous condition can be induced in above-freezing temperatures too. Learning the signs of hypothermia will improve working conditions and potentially save a life.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature is too low to keep functioning. Many people know that the body’s normal functional temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people do not realize that it only takes three degrees of reduced temperature for the human body to enter hypothermia. When the body reaches a temperature below 95 degrees, a person will begin to exhibit mild signs of hypothermia.

Early symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • A weak pulse
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

One of the most dangerous aspects of hypothermia is the fact that the victim is usually not aware of it. Because symptoms of hypothermia are gradual and initially subtle, a victim of hypothermia will not be aware of what is happening to them until its advanced stages.

When hypothermia reaches advanced stages, the following happens:

  • Loss of ability to move
  • A dangerously low heart rate
  • Amnesia
  • Organ failure
  • Coma
  • Death

Basic Winter Safety Tips for Offshore Workers

It is important to take care of your health during the winter, which includes such basic but important guidelines as:

Eating Well

A lack of sunshine and fresh fruits and vegetables can lead to insufficient nutrition and vitamin deficiencies during the winter months. Consider taking a daily vitamin and try to eat foods fortified with Vitamin D such as dairy products, whole grains, salmon, and other types of fish.

When you have time off, it might not be the right moment to relax with your favorite alcoholic beverage if outdoor conditions are too cold. Alcohol consumption can cause the body to lose heat faster.

Dressing Warm

Pay attention to your body and to the temperature and wind chill factors. Take time to dress warm, cover exposed skin, and protect your core body temperature when working. It’s a great idea to wear several layers of loose, warm clothing. Doing so can help trap and warm air between the layers to insulate from the cold.

If you’re wearing thick socks or using hand and foot warmers, make sure they don’t make your footwear too tight. Improperly fitting footwear can restrict blood flow and harm the body’s ability to stay warm.

Additionally, don’t neglect wearing hats or headbands that cover your ears as they’re very susceptible to frostbite.

Being Prepared

Make sure that you know the regulations that apply to you and are designed to protect your safety. If you have concerns about your training, conditions on your vessel, or any other safety issue, don’t hesitate to report them to management. Ultimately, it’s their job to make sure your concerns are addressed and that you and your coworkers are safe.

Protecting Your Mental Health

One study found that weather conditions were thought to negatively affect the mental health of offshore workers, particularly in the North Sea platforms. In turn, depression and seasonal affective disorder could cause a decrease in care, attentiveness, and awareness at work—which could lead to dangerous accidents and injuries.

Take steps to take care of your mental health and be aware of the warning signs of depression as caused by lowered light exposure. The article cited good communication, experience at work, and personal responsibility as three factors helpful in addressing awareness problems caused by depression.

Working Offshore During Winter Requires Accountability

It's ultimately the responsibility of companies to protect their workers in all conditions, in the dead of winter or the height of summer. Every employer must ensure workers have the equipment and training to work safely in unpredictable and challenging conditions. When they fail to do this, they should be held accountable for the injuries or deaths they failed to prevent.

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