What if I accidentally ended up locked in a walk-in freezer?

Kevin Doane rolls a cart of freshly caught Maryland Blue Crabs into a walk in freezer on August 3, 2005.
Kevin Doane rolls a cart of freshly caught Maryland Blue Crabs into a walk in freezer on August 3, 2005.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It's way past midnight and it's been a really long night at the restaurant where you work. You only need to repair that broken shelf in the walk-in freezer and then you can go home. After you enter the frigid air, you decide it might be a good idea to get your sweatshirt -- the shelf may take a few minutes to fix. You push the door but nothing happens. Then you try pressing the safety release handle and realize the shelf isn't the only item in disrepair. You think, "Now what am I going to do -- why did I agree to lock up by myself tonight?" Since you're all alone, there's no point in ringing the safety bell. You glance at your watch and realize it's going to be about six hours before the breakfast crew arrives…

What do you do in a situation like this? First, let's take a look at your surroundings to see what you're facing:

  • The temperature is probably somewhere between 0°F and -10°F (this would meet the FDA requirement for walk-in freezers).
  • The ceiling, walls and door are four to six inches thick -- made of some kind of insulating foam like urethane covered in sheets of galvanized steel, stainless steel or aluminum
  • The floor is also covered in galvanized steel, stainless steel or aluminum.
  • There are stainless steel shelves loaded with plastic bags filled with meat, poultry, fish and other frozen foodstuffs.
  • A single vapor-proof fixture provides dim lighting.
  • A row of thick plastic curtains hangs in the doorway.

Basically, you're inside a tightly sealed, extremely cold, giant metal box. You need to worry about:

The normal core body temperature of a healthy person is 98.6°F. Hypothermia occurs when a person's body temperature drops significantly below normal:

  • Mild hypothermia - core body temperature between 93.2°F and 96.8°F
  • Moderate hypothermia - core body temperature between 73.4°F and 89.6°F
  • Severe or profound hypothermia - core body temperature between 53.6°F and 68°F

A person suffering from hypothermia will become tired and confused. He or she may have slowed breathing and speech followed by a loss of feeling or movement of their hands. Persons with severe hypothermia are at high risk for cardiac arrest and possibly death.

In order to keep hypothermia at bay, you need to maintain your core body temperature. Your best bet at doing this is by fashioning some kind of protection from the cold.

Preventing Hypothermia

In Moscow, five people died of hypothermia in a 24-hour period on January 31, 2007.
In Moscow, five people died of hypothermia in a 24-hour period on January 31, 2007.
Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images

You lose body heat in a number of ways. You lose heat when you breathe and perspire. Large areas of exposed skin radiate a lot of heat. Heat can also be conducted from your body through contact with cold surfaces such as snow, or in this case extremely cold metal. Obviously, you have a limited cache of useful supplies, but all is not lost. You've gone into the walk-in to repair some shelves, so you have a roll of duct tape in your pocket and an all-purpose tool like a Leatherman or Bucktool. Using those resources, you could remove the plastic curtains from the doorway and make a suit or a tent to insulate yourself from the cold. If you do this quickly, you should be able to keep your body temperature close to normal until you're well insulated, especially since you'll be exerting energy to make the suit or tent. You would then want to use any extra plastic or cardboard you might find to make a thick palette to sit on, so that you aren't touching the metal floor, which is a good conductor of energy.

To inhibit frostbite, you need to make sure that your extremities are covered and protected from the cold. The plastic tent or suit should help with this. Your head radiates an incredible amount of heat away from your body. So, if your t-shirt is long enough, cut off any extra material from the hem, making sure not to expose any skin, and use the material and some duct tape to make a hat or head wrap and a pair of mittens. This will protect your hands, head and face from frostbite and will also help limit the amount of heat you are radiating from your body and exhaling as you breathe.

Now that you know what to do about hypothermia and frostbite, what about the air? Let's say you're in a freezer that is 20 by 10 by eight feet, and it's completely sealed. That means you have 1,600 cubic feet of air to breathe. Initially the air is 20 percent oxygen and nearly 0 percent carbon dioxide. Each time you breathe, your body consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. You inhale air that's 20 percent oxygen and 0 percent carbon dioxide and exhale air that's about 15 percent oxygen and 5 percent carbon dioxide.

A person at rest breathes about 2,800 cubic feet of air per day. If you do the math, you'll see that a person needs about 150 cubic feet of pure oxygen per day. There's 320 cubic feet of pure oxygen in the freezer. People are OK with oxygen concentrations down to 10 percent or so, so there's enough oxygen to last for about a full day in a freezer this size. No running and jumping around however -- oxygen is precious in an environment like this.

The other side of the coin is carbon dioxide. Once the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air gets above 5 percent, it's fatal. At 2 percent, your breathing rate will increase significantly and weakness is obvious. In a freezer this size, too much carbon dioxide is actually a much bigger problem than too little oxygen. After six hours, the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning will be noticeable.

Let's say that you're successful with your tent, hat and mittens. When the morning crew arrives almost six hours later, you'll probably be flushed, weak, and dizzy or disoriented from the carbon dioxide. Also, at best, you'll almost certainly be suffering from mild hypothermia, so your speech may be slow and you'll have limited control of your hands. You will need fresh air -- perhaps even supplemental oxygen -- and treatment for hypothermia. Even if you aren't exhibiting all of these symptoms, it's probably best to seek medical attention.

For more information on freezers, refrigerators and related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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