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Surviving a cold-water emergency

In our last article, we reviewed the risks associated with frozen water bodies such as dugouts on the farm. Now we look at what to do if someone falls through the ice.

To begin, unless you are trapped in your vehicle or can’t swim, hypothermia is your worst enemy. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than it produces it. Mild hyperthermia sets in when a person’s core body temperature drops below 35 C (or below 95 F), while severe hypothermia occurring when body temperature drops below 27.8 C (82 F).

An average core body temperature is 37 C (or 98.6 F). Factors such as a person’s age, body fat, body mass, drug and alcohol consumption, medications, and medical conditions such as diabetes and thyroid issues impact vulnerability to hyperthermia.

When exposed to cold temperatures, 90 per cent of heat loss occurs through the skin, while 10 per cent is exhaled through the lungs. Since water is very good at transferring heat away from your body, cold water immersion can increase heat loss by up to 50 per cent. Normally, the heart and liver produce most of an individual’s body heat. But when immersed in cold water, these organs slow down, resulting in a protective shut down to preserve heat and safeguard the brain. As lower body temperatures set it, brain activity, heart rate, and breathing slow, causing confusion, fatigue and hampering a person’s ability to respond. Left untreated, hypothermia can result in a complete failure of the heart and respiratory system, leading to dead. In other words, if you or someone you know falls through the ice, every minute counts.

If you fall in, try to stay calm. You have probably aspirated water involuntarily as gasping is a normal response to the cold water shock. Cough to clear your lungs and call for help. Resist the urge to climb out where you fell in as the ice is probably weak in this area. Don’t remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes can trap air and provide some warmth and buoyancy in the water. Try to use this buoyancy to float on your stomach. Reach forward and place your arms on the ice but don’t press down, as this might break the ice further. Kick with your legs to propel your torso onto the ice. Once on the ice, don’t get up. Identify the shoreline and roll or crawl away from the open area and head towards shore, spreading your arms and legs out to distribute your weight.

If you are near someone when they fall in, call for help or have someone call emergency personnel right away. Rescuing someone from cold water is dangerous. The safest means of retrieval is from the shore. If you have already prepared for an emergency, there should be a personal floatation device (PFD), pole, weighted rope, ladder, or other retrieval devices nearby. If you can reach the person from shore, lie down and extend or throw the retrieval device to them. If you must venture onto the ice, put on a PFD, grab your retrieval device (a ladder will help distribute your weight), and depending on how far the break is from shore, walk or crawl slowly out onto the ice. Bring along a stick or pole to check the ice as you advance towards the open area. Once you are near the break, crawl if you aren’t already and extend the retrieval device to the injured party and have them kick as they pull themselves out or you pull them to safety.

Once an individual has been moved to shore, assess their medical situation. If emergency medical personnel have yet to arrive, ensure they are conscious, breathing and have a pulse. If they are not breathing or lack a pulse, begin CPR immediately (check your local Red Cross, St. John’s Ambulance, or Lifesaving Society for courses in your region).

Even if the individual is conscious, their body temperature will continue to drop unless emergency measures are taken. Move the individual as gently as possible to a sheltered location that is warm, dry, and out of the elements. Remove or cut away any wet clothes. Avoid unnecessary movements such as vigorously massaging or rubbing as this can trigger cardiac arrest. Replace wet clothing with warm, dry clothes and cover the individual with blankets from head to toe. Offer warm liquids, but avoid alcohol or anything with caffeine as these chemicals speed up heat loss. If you must use hot packs, electric blankets, or heating pads, apply them to the torso, armpits, neck and groin. But be cautious to avoid direct contact with the skin, as this could cause a burn or irregular heartbeats. Also, avoid using heating pads on the arms and legs as this could force cold blood back towards the heart, lungs and brain, causing a potentially fatal drop in core body temperature. If no other warming methods are available, use your own body heat to keep the individual warm until help arrives.

Hopefully, you will never have to experience a cold water emergency on your farm. But if you do, take comfort in knowing the steps you can take to minimize injuries and increase the chances of survival for everyone who lives or works on your farm. †

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