Last month, I talked about cold weather gear to keep everyone warm, safe and productive. This usually works pretty well, but sometimes the weather, or your preparation, doesn’t cooperate. There are times when we have to spend long hours outside, aren’t really dressed for it or, worst of all, get wet in winter weather. Sometimes, getting wet in our business can’t be helped. That is why having a spare change of clothes is very important. To be able to change into dry clothes may save your life.

The two most common injuries due to cold weather are frostbite and hypothermia. The most common is frostbite. It happens when skin temperature falls due to cold or wet conditions. It is most common on fingers, toes, nose, ears and cheeks. It can affect the skin and underlying tissues. Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It doesn’t cause permanent damage and can be easily treated by re-warming the area. More serious frostbite needs medical attention. Possible complications can include infection or nerve damage.

Years ago, I worked as a deck man on a double rig in central Michigan. In winter. It usually wasn’t too bad. We had a boiler and tarps, and the floor wasn’t too bad. We were working 8 hour tours, so we could get off, warm up and be ready for the next day. One time we had a combination of events that taught me a lot — the hard way. We had a fishing job, so pipe tripping was necessary. Continuously.

I was working daylights (07:00 to 15:00). When relief showed up, they were short a derrick hand because the weather had turned into 20 below with a 30 mph wind. Wimp. The evening driller asked me if I would double. He said he’d make it worth my while. I didn’t want to, but the money was good for the day and I didn’t like to leave guys in a bind.

We were tripping out of the hole to change tools, so I went back up to the monkey board and continued out of the hole. I was pretty cold, but the rig had two steam heaters on the floor and one in the derrick, so I could keep my feet thawed. The problem was, the driller’s feet got cold and the heat didn’t keep up, so he turned the valve off to the derrick heater to keep warm. I was so cold that I didn’t realize it until the tour was over at 23:00 hours. I came down, and could barely walk.

When I got up the next morning, most of my toes were black! And they hurt like sin. I went to the doctor, and he told me that he might have to cut them off. I told him that if they fell off, he could have them. Otherwise, no. I eventually recovered, but to this day, cold weather bothers my feet. The funny thing about frostbite nerve damage is that your toes are connected to your inner ear and help with your balance. That’s why we are bipedal. I would always have to take a step to keep my balance. It wasn’t a problem until I got drafted. Trainees were expected to stand still at attention, without moving. With my nerve damage in my toes, I would occasionally have to take a short step to keep my balance. This did not impress my drill sergeant, and cost me about 10,000 extra push-ups.

The other big danger of cold weather is hypothermia. According to the Mayo Clinic (just in case y’all think I’m full of it), hypothermia is a condition when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but when core temperature falls below 95 degrees, serious problems arise.

The first sign is shivering. This is your body’s way of producing heat. If the body’s energy can’t keep up, core temperature drops. The next signs are slurred speech or mumbling; slow, shallow breaths; a weak pulse; drowsiness and, finally, loss of consciousness. Very often people with hypothermia aren’t aware because the symptoms appear gradually. This causes confused thinking, which can lead to risk-taking behavior (again, according to the Mayo Clinic).

Treatment for hypothermia almost always needs to be done by others because the victim may not be aware enough, or able, to help himself. Warm, dry clothes and blankets in a sheltered area out of the wind are a first step. Once the victim is stabilized, call for medical help.

Additional risk factors for hypothermia include:

  • Exhaustion. Long hours use energy.
  • Older age. The body’s ability to regulate temperature and sense cold may diminish with age.
  • Alcohol use. Alcohol may make your body feel warm, but heat loss is much faster if you have a significant amount of alcohol in your system. The old saw about a drink to warm up just makes you less likely to feel it.

Prevention is the most important way to handle either frostbite or hypothermia. Preparation is key. Know where you are going (weather-wise) and prepare for it. It is easier to take off unneeded clothes than put to on some you forgot to bring.

Stay warm, my friends, and look forward to spring!

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