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Cold and Winter Weather-Related Workplace Injuries and Tips to Prevent Them
Exposure to severe winter weather and cold temperatures can lead to serious injury and even death. As reported by TIME, the cold snap of January 2019 that brought record-breaking low temperatures resulted in the deaths of 22 individuals. For those working outdoors, especially, winter weather conditions can bring severe and chilling dangers, including slip and fall accidents, cold stress, and exposure-related injuries.
Cold and winter weather-related accidents are common. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2017, there were over 20,000 occupational injuries related to ice, sleet and snow, 14 percent (2,890 cases) of which occurred in New York State.
Among the most vulnerable to exposure are those who work outdoors, including trade occupations like construction, agriculture, and fishing, as well as first responders, recreational workers, and snow cleanup crews. Jobs that involve frequent exposure to lower temperature areas, such as freezer storage workers, may also be at higher risk for cold-related injuries.
What are the Risks?
Slip and falls are one of the most frequently reported on-the-job injuries. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), slips, trips and falls account for 20 percent of all workplace injuries. In addition, slip and falls make up 15 percent of all accidental deaths, second only to motor vehicle accidents. With cold weather factors in play, the likelihood of this type of accident occurring increases that much more.
Working from elevated heights in winter-weather conditions can also bring significant and sometimes fatal risks. Snow-covered rooftops may hide fall-through hazards like skylights and electrical dangers from powerlines and snow removal equipment. In the construction industry sector, falls are the leading cause of death.
Aside from slip and fall accidents, workers may also be at risk of injury from cold stress and exposure. When an individual is unable to warm his or herself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur that can lead to permanent tissue damage or even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common cold-related related illnesses include chilblains (painful inflammation of blood vessels in the skin that causes itching, skin ulcers, swelling, burning, and red patches), trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.
Still, with proper preparation and precautions, a majority of these illnesses and injuries can be avoided.
Best Practices for Employers
OSHA does not have specific standards for working in cold environments; however, under OSHA, employers have a duty to protect workers from hazards. With this in mind, employers should take the lead on safety initiatives by establishing safety standards, promoting a company culture of workplace safety at every level of management, and training supervisors and workers to properly prevent, identify, and treat cold-related illnesses and injuries.
Management should create a plan for assessing and addressing cold-related workplace hazards posed by sudden weather changes, including temperature drops, snow squalls, and wind advisories, among others. If working in cold temperatures is unavoidable, try to reduce workers’ time exposed to freezing temperatures and physical demands by scheduling work for the warmest part of the days and using relief laborers or rotating staff in and out for long, strenuous jobs.
To avoid winter weather-related slip and falls in the workplace, employers should clear snow and ice from walking surfaces and put down ice melt as quickly as possible after a storm. Employers should be sure to monitor indoor floors for slippery surfaces and, for wet areas that can’t be immediately addressed, signage should be posted.
If and when possible, employers should use snow removal processes that do not require workers to go on roofs or other elevated surfaces. If elevated surfaces cannot be avoided, it’s important to have them be inspected by a competent individual to determine if it is structurally safe to bear the weight of workers. Employers should determine the right type of equipment to be used for the job and personal protective equipment for workers and make sure that all are properly trained on how to use them. If there’s a risk of workers falling, it’s vital to supply fall protection equipment as well.
Proper cold-weather gear and accessories can often mean the difference between safety and serious injury when it comes to working in freezing temperatures. If working or walking in snow and ice is unavoidable, employers should encourage workers to wear proper footwear with traction and insulation. Workers should be trained to take short steps and walk at a slower pace to react quickly to changes in traction. In addition, employers should advise their workers to wear appropriate cold-weather clothing such as thermals, windbreakers, hats, gloves and boots, and have extra warm gear on-hand for those who need it.
Steps to Take After a Cold or Winter Weather-Related Accident or Injury Occurs
While no one anticipates that they will suffer a cold-related injury, it is important to be prepared and take action should an accident occur. First and foremost, it’s important that injured individuals remain calm, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention for their injuries. In some cases, an individual may be in shock and will not be aware that they have suffered severe injuries until well after the accident occurs. For this reason, it’s important for injured persons to have their ailments properly evaluated, documented, and treated by a medical professional.
Following the treatment of injuries, workers should file an accident report and file a workers’ compensation claim. Generally, workers cannot sue their employers for on-the-job injuries or illnesses, including those caused by cold exposure. Instead, they have the option of filing a claim under workers' compensation law in order to recover losses, including medical bills, lost wages, total and partial disability, and wrongful death benefits. Negligence is not a determining factor in workers’ compensation claims, so regardless of whether the worker or employer was at-fault for the injury, benefits can still be provided.
For those who suffer a cold-related injury or lose a loved one due to the negligence of another person or entity, outside of an employer, victims may secure compensation for losses due to their injuries through a personal injury lawsuit. Damages awarded in personal injury cases are provided to make victims “whole,” and can include compensation for medical expenses, lost income, future wages or diminished earning potential, physical pain and suffering, as well as mental anguish, lost quality of life, and other emotional injuries. Victims looking to pursue legal recourse for damages they’ve suffered due to negligence should consult the guidance of an experienced personal injury lawyer who can advise them of their legal rights and remedies.
Slip and falls, cold stress, and exposure can have devastating and, sometimes, deadly effects. However, these injuries and illnesses are often preventable with proper preparation and precautions. Workers in occupations regularly exposed to the elements are particularly at risk of serious injury. For this reason, employers should set the standard of safety and take measures to protect staff from cold-related injuries and illnesses. Workers injured on the job may be able to recover medical and disability benefits, among others, through a workers’ compensation claim. Those injured due to a third party’s negligence may be able to seek legal remedies through a personal injury lawsuit.
David Perecman, Founder and Lead Trial Attorney at The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., is a distinguished New York attorney who concentrates his practice in all aspects of personal injury law, including construction accidents, premises liability, automobile accidents, medical malpractice, as well as employment discrimination, false arrest, and civil rights matters. He has successfully represented individuals who were seriously injured and the surviving family members of those who were fatally injured and has helped to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation on their behalf. The Perecman Firm is a full-service personal injury law firm with offices in New York, New York, and Jericho, New York. For more information, visit www.perecman.com