Research suggests task is as important as temperature in cold weather work

Morris and Pilcher took advantage of Powell’s trip as a researcher and kayak tour guide and sent equipment with him to Antarctica to collect data on both physiological responses to cold and the perceptions of cold by the tour guides.
Image Credit: Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management

CLEMSON — Bob Powell is addicted to cold. And not just any cold—Antarctic cold. Powell, director of the Clemson University Institute for Parks, has studied awe-inspiring landscapes and tourism on the continent for more than 20 years. At one point, he even studied it via sea kayak for two months.

He says the cold landscape “got under his skin.”

Clemson psychology graduate student Drew Morris knows the feeling. Morris studies how people psychologically react to cold weather stressors because of his personal experience growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where temperatures routinely drop to around minus 40 degrees.

Powell, Morris and Clemson psychology professor June Pilcher, who studies psychological effects of environmental stressors, recently joined forces to study how the Antarctic cold affects an individual mentally.

Their article, “Task-dependent cold stress during expeditions in Antarctic environments,” was featured in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

They chose to study the effects of extended cold exposure in Antarctica because of the recent growth of Antarctic tourism. They focused their research on tour guides, who must keep the tourists safe as well as complete their job-related tasks. They wanted to see how they are affected by the cold and how to mitigate those effects.

Morris and Pilcher took advantage of Powell’s trip as a kayak tour guide and sent equipment with him to Antarctica to collect data. Powell used the equipment himself and distributed it to the other tour guides for data collection.
Pieces of equipment no bigger than a Fitbit provided information on body temperature and activity level during various kayaking, snorkeling, and walking excursions. During these activities, the tour guides provided feedback on how cold they felt.

Morris, Pilcher and Powell consider their study exploratory, but said their results were novel.

“It’s not just an academic exercise. These are real working conditions,” said Powell, who also serves as a professor in Clemson’s department of parks, recreation and tourism management. “There’s a small amount of people — scientists or tour guides — working in those environments.”

This particular study focused on what risks are posed if cold exposure mentally impairs the tour guides, who can’t escape the weather.

“We know if people are in the cold, their skin temperature is going to decrease. But, the question is how are they affected psychologically?” Pilcher said. “There’s less research on what the individual’s response is mentally to the cold.”

So, they studied perceived cold, which is how cold an individual thinks he or she is, and found that tasks demanding a person’s attention are more likely to make the person less aware of how cold he or she is.

This finding suggests that people paying more attention to a task are at an increased risk for cold-related injuries because of their unawareness of their cooling body temperature.

But, you don’t have to go to Antarctica to experience cold. The results correlate with Pilcher’s and Morris’ previous research findings about stressors in a wide range of environmental and work settings.

“You can think that you have to go to an extreme place to feel cold, but cold is just a shift below what you’re used to in any environment you’re in,” Morris said.

Because temperature makes a difference in people’s ability to perform tasks, even driving, Morris said it’s important to study the psychological effect of cold.

“We are just starting to look into this area, but we are finding that the cold impacts your self-control. Cold has a lot of effects. You can’t think when you’re cold,” Morris said. “It’s distracting. Your fingers get stiff. We’re not rational people when we’re cold and uncomfortable. We’re like the worst version of ourselves.”

A big component of the solution is self-awareness.

“Be aware of how you react to the cold,” Morris said. “Thermal stress looks a lot like sleep deprivation. You don’t realize how poor your performance is.”

Pilcher said this type of research on environmental stressors has the potential to help employers understand how their employees, who work primarily outside and unsheltered, adapt to and perform in uncomfortable weather conditions.

“The key idea is to see how can we help employers predict this impact. That involves how individuals perceive how cold they are,” Pilcher said. “Can we predict how often workers need a break from cold work environments or when workers need better protective equipment to help them better manage working in the cold? Our current results suggest that the answer to these types of questions may depend on the perception of cold for each individual. This research can help industry and government develop and maintain potential countermeasures.”

Pilcher, Morris and Powell plan to expand their research in Antarctica and to include other outdoor workers, such as mail carriers and construction workers.