Military Non-freezing Cold Injury Compensation Claims
Bolt Burdon Kemp has extensive experience of acting for service personnel who have suffered non-freezing cold injuries (NFCI) at home and abroad.
Military regulations are clear that non-freezing cold injuries are largely preventable and that it is a management issue to ensure service men and women are protected. If unnecessary cold injuries have occurred then a claim for compensation is possible.
Duty of care and NFCI
The military has a duty to protect service personnel from unnecessary cold injuries. This includes ensuring that training and other exercises are carried out safely, and that men and woman are:
- Given the tools to enable them to avoid injury even in tough conditions
- Provided with the right clothing, shelter and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Fully trained in how to recognise and prevent NFCI
- Encouraged to report signs of NFCI
- Regularly monitored for signs of cold injury, e.g. foot inspections
- Evacuated when they report symptoms of NFCI
- Able to carry out duties in appropriate temperatures
- Given warm drinks, food and sufficient breaks to dry and change clothing
- Not required to undertake excessive physical tasks in inappropriately cold and wet conditions
Causes of non-freezing cold injury
A non-freezing cold injury occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below its natural level for a significant length of time. For this reason, exercises or service conducted for long periods outdoors present an obvious danger.
When a person’s core temperature falls too low the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to the extremities and starving the areas of oxygen and nutrients. This is harmful even though body tissues do not freeze. If there is no immediate treatment nerve and blood vessel damage can occur, sometimes causing permanent injury.
It is important to remember that these injuries can happen in temperatures as “high” as four degrees above freezing.
Individual service personnel and cold injuries
Service personnel of African and Afro-Caribbean descent, including those of mixed race, are particularly vulnerable in low temperatures. The MoD has acknowledged research indicating that these groups are 30 times more likely to contract an NFCI than Caucasian service personnel.
This variance in the degrees of exposure required from one person to another makes educating service personnel, the chain of command and MOs essential. From early Phase One training all men and women in the armed forces should be made thoroughly familiar with the signs of cold injury, and there should be frequent reminders throughout service.
Preventing cold injuries
Cold injuries can become serious, and irreversible, very rapidly. They need to be identified and treated quickly to avoid long-lasting damage to the body’s nervous and vascular systems.
Bolt Burdon Kemp’s experience tells us that the best way to prevent cold injuries is education up and down the chain of command. Unfortunately, many of our clients tell us that neither they nor their chain of command were provided with adequate training. Cold injuries can be prevented by:
- Limiting exposure
- Keeping feet and hands as dry as possible
- Regular hot food and drink
- Early recognition of symptoms, evacuation and treatment
- Reporting incidents properly to help identify clusters of cases
- Most importantly, being aware of the early signs of cold injury
Military regulations say that instructors and senior staff should evacuate service personnel who may be suffering with cold injuries at an early stage, but these are not always followed.
Too often, the NCO or SNCO will tell the injured person to “man up”, or persuade them to continue with the exercise. This is often because they themselves have not been adequately trained in the signs and prevention of cold injury, or because their training has not been updated.
Symptoms of cold injuries
NFCIs usually affect the body’s extremities, such as hands and feet. Symptoms include:
- ‘Cotton wool feet’ ‘Wearing someone else’s feet’
- Excessive sweating
It must also be remembered that when temperatures are very low frostbite can occur and may lead to amputation, coma or even death. This situation is called a ‘freezing’ injury because the water in the body’s tissues freezes, with devastating consequences.
The effects of NFCI can vary from being mild to severe. Even mild injuries can leave long-term effects such as problems regulating body temperature. The damage to a military career and the prolonged pain can even result in depression.
Many of our clients have problems with day-to-day living because their hands have been affected so that their manual dexterity is reduced.
Service personnel who are discharged with a cold injury are often at a significant disadvantage in civilian life. Sufferers are often unable to work outside in cold weather, severely limiting their career options.
Personnel from the Commonwealth will often find that, following a cold injury, they are restricted to working in warm climates. This means they can no longer follow any plans they may have made to make a life in the UK, Europe or North America.
Making a claim for a cold injury
Military regulations make it clear that cold injuries are largely preventable. If unnecessary cold injuries occur, the military has failed in its duty of care.
If you think you have suffered from a cold injury you should make a claim as soon as possible, as strict time limits apply – even for claims through the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.
If you think you have suffered a cold injury that could have been avoided, contact one of our solicitors, without charge or obligation, to discuss making a claim.