A Guide for Offshore Workers in Cold Winter Conditions
Most offshore injury claims come from incidents that occur in the maritime field such as slip and falls, rigging accidents, or other common dangers. However, one of the most dangerous and constant challenges an offshore worker can face is cold exposure.
If a maritime worker is exposed to frigid waters, they could suffer from hypothermia, frostbite, or other severe complications. Maritime hypothermia can even lead to death in extreme cases, making it crucial that workers are not only properly equipped for the cold, but also properly trained to handle it.
According to data from the World Offshore Accident Database (WOAD), accidents in the North Sea—where natural daylight can occur as little as four hours a day during the winter—saw a slight uptick during the winter season. It may be surmised that other offshore workers face similarly increased risks. It is important to be aware of these risks and to mitigate them as much as possible.
How the Body Reacts to Extremely Cold Environments
Cold immersion is one of the leading causes of accidental death globally. Exposure to cold water is one of the greatest stresses because it takes life-sustaining heat away from the body. While hypothermia can set in after about 30 minutes of being in icy waters, cold shock is an infamous issue that can place offshore workers in dangerous situations.
Cold shock describes a series of cardio-respiratory responses triggered by immersion in cold water.
Cold shock also creates an intense strain on the heart. In an effort to retain heat, blood vessels on the outer part of the body constrict, which shifts blood to inner organs to increase their body temperature. In some cases, this causes momentary discomfort, but for those at high risk for heart disease, constricting blood vessels in the heart can lead to a heart attack.
If a person manages to survive the heart strain and involuntary gasping, they have only minutes before their bodies become hypothermic. Hypothermia, however, is not always sudden. Some people can survive for up to 30 minutes in icy water. The ability to swim declines substantially the longer the body is immersed since blood flow is cut off to non-essential muscles.
According to studies, there are four different stages of immersion that can be identified.
- Stage 1: The first 3-5 minutes of immersion will bring about a sudden drop of 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 and can no longer keep themselves afloat. This stage can even make holding on to a floatation device 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, a condition that often results in death.
In many cases, a worker will not suffer hypothermia unless they are in the water for an extended period of time. However, stage one of cold shock can be just as dangerous and even deadly for workers. Being in the water just a few minutes could cause serious injuries.
Immersion in freezing cold water can cause:
- Immersion dieresis
- Saltwater Aspiration Syndrome
- Swimming-induced pulmonary edema
Given the harm falling into icy waters causes, companies and supervisors must create and enforce strict safety measures.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 body 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
Protect Yourself from Cold Air: Staying Warm Offshore
Workers are at risk of injury during cold conditions, even if they haven’t fallen into the water. While cold air exposure is often not as obvious as the dangers of falling overboard, it can leave workers with very serious injuries.
Crucially, workers should protect their extremities in a cold environment, as the body will restrict blood flow to these areas when they start 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, blood flow may be blocked. This means that when these areas do warm up again, the blood will clot and there is no way to remedy the damage to the extremities because the tissue is destroyed, which can lead it to “auto-amputate” or wither. This can require surgery to ensure there is no infection.
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
- A hard and waxy appearance of the skin
- Red, white, blue, or gray/yellow skin
- Decreased ability to move
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.
Safe Management of Portable Masts During Winter
Organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) have set recommendations for protecting oil workers who work outside. One of the top winter accident causes identified by the API is failures in portable masts.
The report stated that the risk in raising or lowering portable masts is increased because steel changes its characteristics in low temperatures. The API set out a number of safety standards that would allow normal operations to take place even in extreme cold.
For managing portable masts in winter, the API recommends, among other factors:
- Schedule raising and lowering times for masts at the warmest hours of the day
- Check wind velocity
- Utilize practice methods to warm the mast such as the application of high-pressure steam at attachment points
- Loosen mast raising lines for assurance of flowing, unhindered movement
- Warming up engines prior to use
- Examining all machinery and ensuring it is in good working order with no malfunctions that could cause the mast to suddenly stop or jar
- Once mast travel has begun, keep the process slow and steady
Working Offshore During Winter Requires Accountability
Offshore, weather can create major problems for workers. While offshore platforms are typically designed to withstand hurricanes, and most storms cause early evacuation and halting of procedures. This is not always the case, however, and injuries can and do occur in extreme weather scenarios, even with all of the equipment and meteorological forecasting technology available now. Snow and ice can create slippery situations. Fast, powerful winds can damage equipment and cause injuries. It’s important to be aware of the dangers and of the standards and regulations established to protect you.
Workers need to protect themselves during adverse weather. However, it's ultimately the responsibility of companies to protect their workers in all conditions. Every employer is obligated to make sure 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 death they failed to prevent.