Well, it’s official. The warm weather is gone. The leaves are falling or have fallen, and the morning air is crisp and damp. For some of us, this signals some of our favorite times — football season and good sleeping weather to name a couple.
This time of year also comes with some pitfalls: flu season, allergy season, and the possibility of snow and ice. For drillers caught unaware, this could mean frozen mud lines, frozen pumps and separated polymers after an unexpected cold night. Here in the Midwest, we typically winterize from Oct. 1 until April 30 — sometimes longer.
I worked much of my career as a geotechnical driller, so working through cold weather was normal. When much of the water well and geothermal work is done for the year, geotech drillers are just getting ramped up. Think about it, everyone wants to be able to start construction projects in the spring. This usually means geotechnical drillers are busy all fall, winter, early spring and sometimes into the heart of summer. We’re guaranteed to be out there working in the coldest and the wettest times of the year. This is not to say that any other type of drilling does not happen in these environments. But most other drilling genres have a lull or shutdown mid-winter, when it is the busiest time of year for most geotechnical drillers. A geotechnical driller’s slow time (if they get one) is late summer when all the construction projects for the year have started but people are not yet thinking about next year’s projects.
I bring this up because cold and wet environments lead to a major safety concern: cold stress. It may seem a little early to talk about could stress to some of you. After all, it is not January or February. It’s November — and early November at that. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) clearly states in their cold stress documents, “In regions relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress. Whenever temperatures drop decidedly below normal and as wind speed increases, heat can more rapidly leave your body. These weather-related conditions may lead to serious health problems.”
Crews unaccustomed to cold weather could suffer from cold stress conditions even with temperatures well above freezing. This makes times when the weather turns, from cold to hot or hot to cold, a risk for temperature-related illnesses. Add wind, rain or drilling fluids to falling temperatures, and it is easy for a body to struggle to maintain temperature.
It typically takes about two weeks for the human body to acclimate to a change in temperature. When body temperature drops to below 95 degrees, a dangerous condition called hypothermia occurs. It’s most common in the spring and fall, rather than the winter. Hypothermia is often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water. I have stood under enough leaking swivels and have had enough plugged bits to know staying dry is not always possible, regardless of the temperature outside. Cold water drains heat from the body 32 times faster than cold air does, so get wet and you are much more likely to become hypothermic. The specific conditions that lead to hypothermia include:
- Wearing clothes that aren't warm enough for weather conditions
- Staying out in the cold too long
- Being unable to get out of wet clothes or move to a warm, dry location
- Falling into water
All these hazards are a possibility on many drill jobs. I once knew a driller who told me how, as he moved his ATV drill across what he thought was a snow-covered field, he heard a loud crack and fell through ice. It turned out the field was flooded with about 28 inches of water! Luckily, the driller had a track-mounted drill with enough clearance to have kept dry. But, what if it had been deeper or a lake? I know another driller who fell through broken ice. He expected to come right up and find the hole he fell through, but that is not what happened. He tried to come to the surface, only to find he was not in the opening he fell through. By his account, he was losing hope and out of air when he finally found his way out.
Hypothermia is not the only way exposure to cold weather can harm you. You could get chilblains or trench foot. Chilblains are a painful inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin. Chilblains happen after repeated exposure to cold, but non-freezing, temperatures. Symptoms of chilblains include redness, itching, possible blistering, inflammation and, in severe cases, even ulcers.
Trench foot is an injury of the feet after prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels in the feet, and then the skin tissue begins to die. Symptoms of trench foot include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin, and gangrene.
One of the most common cold-related injuries happens when the moisture in the body freezes. This condition, called frostbite, can be severe and lead to amputation in extreme cases. In mild cases, you may experience numbness, burning, itching, tingling or cold sensations. In the affected area, the skin will appear white, but if you press on the skin, it retains some resistance. In severe cases, where deeper tissues are affected, skin becomes yellowish and waxy then purplish-blue as it re-warms. The affected area is hard and has no resistance if pressed, and can even appear black. Pain will go from dull to sharp and throbbing as the damaged skin separates from the tissue below over the hours or days after injury.
So what do we do if someone gets a cold-related injury? Get medical help, but start with these important first steps:
- Move them to a warm environment.
- Change them into warm, dry clothes.
- Keep the affected part elevated to reduce swelling.
- Remove all constrictive jewelry and clothes, because they may further block blood flow.
- Give the person warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids to drink.
- Apply a dry, sterile bandage, place cotton between any involved fingers or toes (to prevent rubbing), and take the person to a medical facility as soon as possible.
The best treatment for an injury is prevention. How do we prevent cold-related illnesses? Keep a bin of dry, warm clothes in the drill or support truck. Dress for the coldest expected weather of the day; you can always remove clothes if needed. Wear a waterproof outer layer anytime we expect rain or we’re going to use mud rotary drilling methods in weather below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Wear the appropriate gloves for the task and temperature. If we take these simple steps, we should be able to avoid cold-related illnesses.
Until next time stay healthy, stay warm and keep turning to the right.