Cold weather makes you dumb and that’s a serious safety concern for people who work in construction

Updated Feb 23, 2015

Worker in the cold

Every year about this time we’re bombarded with advice about how to dress warm—layers and all that. Articles about avoiding cold weather injuries abound.

Most of us chairborne rangers can simply stay indoors when the temps fall, but if you work in construction, often you can’t. And that’s why everybody in this industry needs to be aware of  a rarely discussed hazard of cold weather—the fact that it makes you dumb.

The scientific term for this is hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to cold causes your circulatory system to move blood from just under your skin to the inside of your body to keep your vital organs functioning. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t consider your brain to be all that vital. Nature figures it’s more important that your heart keeps beating than it is to do sums in your head. So your brain gets less blood, which means less oxygen, which means you may temporarily lose a few IQ points.

This isn’t as dramatic as frostbite (which is actually rare) but it is no trivial matter, even if you’re a big, burly dude who thinks he can bulldog his way through anything. And unlike frostbite, hypothermia is hard to detect–especially if you are the one suffering from it.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the symptoms of different stages of hypothermia:

  • Mild: mental confusion, glucose consumption by cells and insulin secretion both decrease leading to hypoglycemia.
  • Moderate: muscle mis-coordination becomes apparent. Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion.
  • Severe: difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking and amnesia. Inability to use hands and stumbling.

You may look OK. You may think you’re OK. But you are not OK.

Wikipedia also mentions a phenomenon known as “paradoxical undressing” associated with between 20 to 50 percent of hypothermia deaths. According to the article, as the person becomes disoriented, confused and combative, they may begin discarding their clothing. Bad idea in sub-freezing temps.

Read any of the popular mountaineering books, especially the ones about Everest, and other peaks in the Himalayas and you’ll find plenty of real-world confirmation about the dangers of hypothermia. Given prolonged exposure, even professional, experienced, well-conditioned mountaineers start exhibiting the mental acuity of kindergarteners.

Rescue personnel will tell you the same thing. Perfectly normal weekend hikers get lost in the woods, spend a cold night out and then start wandering in circles like dribbling idiots. Cold makes you dumb. Proven fact.

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Fifteen minutes in the cold is probably good for you, bracing in fact. But five hours, without a warm up? That’s dangerous. Ask yourself: do you want your mechanic working with high pressure hydraulic or fuel systems, or guys working near power lines or excavating around pipelines to suffer from, as Wikipedia notes: muscle mis-coordination, mild confusion, stumbling and amnesia?

So if you’re working in construction or managing construction workers in this winter’s icy grip and you’re concerned about safety, be aware of the dangers of hypothermia. And keep in mind it doesn’t have to be bone-chilling cold to give someone hypothermia. Many people have contracted hypothermia in temperatures above freezing. It all depends on how long you’re exposed and what kind of shape you’re in and how many calories you have left in the tank.

So if you’re out in the cold, do all the preventive stuff, dress appropriately, etc. But also think about scheduling work that isn’t dangerous or mentally or physically challenging. And if you are working outside, think about what you’re going to do before you do it. Double check procedures, work with a buddy. Take warming breaks and remember, in six months it will be hot as blazes.