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The Dangers of Cold Water and How to HELP Yourself

Even if the weather is nice and warm, the water can be cold enough to be dangerous. In fact, any water under 77 degrees should be considered cold water. Cold water carries the body’s heat away 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. When maritime work brings you to the open waters, it is important to know how to be safe when the water is cold.

One Minute - One of the first things that happened when you are immersed in cold water is known as cold shock. This happens within the first minute of immersion and causes you to gasp for breath, your heart to race, and your thinking to be impaired. Water temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees can cause cold shock just as severe as if you were in water that was 35 degrees.

Ten Minutes - After 10 minutes of exposure, you can become incapacitated. Your limbs become unusable because your body is trying to focus on keeping your core warm. Because of this, you can no longer grasp things with your hands, and it becomes nearly impossible to stay upright in the water. Many people drown during this stage of exposure.

One Hour - Within an hour, you can experience hypothermia. Because of the dangers of hypothermia alone, it is imperative that you are wearing the proper clothing to be in or near the water. Wear layers of clothing to help keep your body heat in and wearing a bright outer layer can help you be seen if you fall into the water. Don’t be afraid of wearing many layers. Wet clothes are only heavy outside of the water.

Personal Flotation Devices, or PFDs, are important to have on hand. If you are in the water long enough that you are incapacitated, it will keep you afloat. Make sure you inspect it and that it fits you properly. If you have immersion suits on board, make sure you are trained to use one and know how to don one in an emergency.

When you are alone in open water, floating is your best option. Use the HELP position (also known as Heat Escape Lessening Position) to maintain warmth and stability. This position is essentially hugging yourself, crossing your legs, and raising your knees to your chest. Keep your head out of the water and lean back slightly. Remember, the parts of the body outside the water will stay warmer.

As winter quickly approaches, the water is already getting colder and colder. Take the time to prepare yourself before you go out on the water. For more detailed information, take a look at our OSHA-Compliant Maritime Cold Water Safety Training.

Good luck and stay safe!

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