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, seaspray, 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. For maritime workers that operate on fishing vessels and offshore oil rigs in the Arctic Ocean, they 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 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.
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.
For offshore workers, the risk of cold exposure is present all year long. Arnold & Itkin is here to help if you or someone you love has been injured; just give us a call at (888) 346-5024 for a free, confidential consultation.