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Cold weather and its effect on health

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

Many areas of the UK are spared excessively cold winters thanks to the jet stream and Atlantic winds that are more likely to generate warmer, wetter climates, so bitingly cold and snowy periods aren’t something we’re particularly accustomed to. And when the weather does turn cold, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for our health – it can reduce inflammation and can encourage the body to burn more calories to stay warm. However, when cold weather does set in, it can lead to an increase in certain health conditions, which can have quite serious implications for some.

Cold weather and associated illnesses can have significant implications in the workplace, especially for those with certain chronic health conditions, who are likely to be more affected by the cold. People with chronic health conditions such as asthma, arthritis, psoriasis and cardiovascular disease, need to take particular care to remain active during cold weather whilst ensuring that they are vigilant about reducing the risk of becoming ill (e.g. dressing warmly in several layers of clothes when outside, eating well, and trying not to sit still for long periods).

Employers’ responsibilities in cold weather

Employers have a duty to do what is reasonably practicable to protect the health of their employees whilst at work, but how employers look after their staff in cold weather depends to a large extent on the nature of the work being carried out, and an individual’s state of health. Extra risk assessments may well be required during cold snaps to ensure that employers fulfil their responsibilities (guidance about health risks during cold weather, as well as answers to specific queries, can be sought from the Fit for Work website).

Whilst there is a minimum acceptable temperature for indoor working (at least 16 degrees, or 13 degrees where work involves rigorous physical effort), there are no such parameters for people working outdoors. However, employers are obliged to ensure that working conditions are safe and healthy, and must give workers access to:

  • adequate warm clothing;
  • regular hot drinks;
  • frequent rest breaks to allow workers to warm up.

Outdoor workers can be particularly susceptible to certain cold-related conditions, such as:

  • Raynaud’s: A common condition that can affect the blood supply and nervous system to certain parts of the body, but more commonly the fingers and toes. The symptoms significantly increase in cold weather when the blood vessels go into a temporary spasm which blocks the flow of blood. This causes the affected area to change colour to white, then blue and then finally red as the blood flow returns. Sufferers usually experience pain, numbness and pins and needles in the affected body parts. Symptoms can last from a few minutes to several hours.
  • Hypothermia: This can develop when a person’s body loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Normal body temperature is around 37ºc and hypothermia develops when the body temperature drops by a mere 2ºc. This drop in temperature prevents the vital organs from working correctly, which can lead to organ failure and, potentially, death.
  • Painful joints: Cold weather can cause joint pain for some people, particularly in load-bearing joints such as the knees, hips and ankles. There are various theories as to why the cold causes joint pain, which could be to do with the diversion of blood flow to the core causing the blood vessels in the joints to constrict, or potentially due to an inflammatory response in the joints to changes in barometric pressure.
  • Heart attacks: The incidence of heart attacks increases in the winter because of the concentration of blood flow in the core of the body during cold weather, which increases blood pressure and puts the heart under more strain. According to the British Heart Foundation, the risk of heart attack and stroke doubles during three-day cold periods compared with shorter cold ‘snaps’ – deaths from heart attack and stroke increased by 14% between December 2015 and March 2016 compared to the rest of the year.

Those working indoors during periods of cold weather, in heated and sometimes badly ventilated environments, can be susceptible to other health conditions:

  • Colds and flu: These are caused by viral infections and not by the cold weather as such. However, colds and flu are more common during the winter months, partly because the combination of heating and poor ventilation can make it easier for bugs to spread, and partly because the immune system is supressed during cold weather because blood flow is focused on the core of the body. The subsequent reduction in blood flow means that there are fewer white blood cells available to fight disease. This year’s flu outbreak has been particularly severe, and there have been almost three times as many deaths from flu this year than last year, so people with chronic health conditions are being advised to ensure that they have had their flu jab.
  • Asthma: People with asthma have sensitive airways, which can get aggravated by cold or damp weather conditions, and worsened asthma is often connected with winter colds and flu. Whilst the temptation may be to stay indoors to avoid asthma-triggering weather conditions, this can make things worse too, because heated houses, limited ventilation and indoor air pollutants can aggravate asthma too.
  • Norovirus: Despite norovirus existing all year round, it is commonly known as the ‘winter vomiting bug’, mainly because it spreads more easily during cold weather when people spend more time in close proximity to each other in heated buildings. Norovirus spreads rapidly in closed environments, which is why there are commonly outbreaks in schools, hospitals, hotels or cruise liners.

Need guidance on issues relating to work and health?

Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).

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