Prepare for the two biggest safety threats this winter: falls from heights when removing snow, as well as slips and falls when entering and exiting buildings.

Besting Winter's Worst

Prepare for the two biggest safety threats this winter: Falls from heights when removing snow, as well as slips and trips when entering and exiting buildings, are the biggest threats to your workers' safety this upcoming winter.

Soon enough winter will be upon us in North America, and with it comes a host of dangerous outcomes. From cold stress and frostbite to slips and trips, it may seem as if it winter has the potential to be the most dangerous season. Luckily, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides tips on how to stay safe this winter.

Ultimately, the thing to avoid across all industries is cold stress. Cold stress brings down the temperature of the body by first lowering the temperature of the skin and working its way to the internal body temperature. Possible outcomes are serious health problems, tissue damage, and even death. The more time spent outside in the cold, the more likely it is cold stress will have an effect on a worker. The body will naturally shift blood from the hands and feet toward the core. As the heat travels, cold-specific illnesses are more likely to occur.

Cold stress can lead to a number of cold weather-specific ailments, including hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is the result of heat escaping the body faster than it can be replaced. It is most likely to happen at very cold temperatures, but it can happen at cool temperatures if moisture is in play.

Frostbite occurs when skin and the underlying tissues freeze on the body. Frostbite is most likely to affect the hands and feet. In some severe cases, amputation may be required.

General safety tips for avoiding these issues are: Employers need to communicate to workers on how to prevent such illnesses; employers should provide equipment such as heaters when available; and employees need to dress properly in order to comply with the conditions at hand.

When it comes to cold weather, there are two key areas of concern outside of general work safety practices: slip hazards and falls from heights.

Preventing Slips and Trips in the Winter
Due to the accumulation of ice, slips, trips, and falls are much more likely to occur in the winter months. To prevent potential injury, employers should clear snow and ice from walking surfaces as well as spread deicer.

It's important to deice surfaces as quickly as possible after a winter storm. OSHA has a couple of key tips for helping to keep workers safe from these hazards. When walking on snow or ice is unavoidable, workers should be trained to:

  • Wear proper footwear. A pair of sturdy boots that are insulated and water resistant can prevent feet from getting wet and cold, which can travel up through the body. It's also a good idea to have a pair of rubber overshoes with good treads that can fit over street shoes.
  • Proper footwear can help prevent trench foot and frostbite on the lower limbs, as well. According to OSHA, trench foot is a "non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions." It can occur in warm temperatures as well as cold temperatures if the feet are consistently wet. The injury occurs because wet feet can lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet.
  • If trench foot occurs, call 911 and remove the wet items, such as boots and shoes.
  • Keeping the feet dry is the most important thing.
  • Take short steps and walk at a slower pace. This allows you to react quickly to a slippery surface that is often hidden by snow.

Falls from Heights While Removing Snow from Rooftops and Elevated Surfaces
One of the most common causes of occupational injuries and fatalities is a fall at heights. While this remains an issue year round, the dangers are accentuated in winter by slippery surfaces and the additional work of snow removal at heights.

With regards to fall protection, personal fall arrest systems and guardrails are some of the most commonly used forms of fall protection used specifically for work on roofs. Personal fall arrest systems usually involve an anchor point, a full-body harness, and a connector. The anchor points must be able to support 5,000 pounds for each worker attaching to them. Guardrails must be 42 inches high with a midrail.

Typically, snow has to be removed from a rooftop in order to protect the structure underneath. The limits of the roof's capacity are put to the test during times of heavy snowfall. Workers often climb directly onto the roof and shovel snow off, although sometimes lifts are used to help lighten the load put on structures.

An OSHA Hazard Alert offers some must-read information regarding falls due to snow removal. Some of the best ways to avoid injury while clearing snow include:

  • Use snow removal methods that do not involve workers on roofs, when possible.
  • Use ladders to apply deicing materials.
  • Use snow rakes or drag lines from the ground.
  • Evaluate the volume of snow on the roof versus the roof’s load limit.
  • Remove snow uniformly across the roof.
  • Avoid making snow piles on the roof.
  • Require workers use fall protection equipment.
  • Train workers on the proper use of fall protection equipment.
  • Instruct workers to put on their harnesses and buckle them snugly before mounting the roof.
  • Have a rescue plan for workers caught by a fall protection system.
  • Ensure workers use ladders and lifts safely.
  • Check the ladder rungs for ice.
  • Position the ladder at the correct angle.
  • Make sure workers who operate aerial lifts are properly trained in the safe use of the equipment.
  • Never move the equipment with workers in an elevated platform.

It's also important to ask yourself a number of questions before assigning workers to clear snow, such as: Are there any hazards on the roof that might be hidden? How should the snow be removed? What tools and equipment will workers need?

While clearing the snow on rooftops, it's also important to note the potential hazards of shoveling snow. Shoveling snow can put strain on the body, which is only heightened in the cold. Someone engaged in this task could potentially suffer from exhaustion, dehydration, a back injury, or a heart attack. It’s important to take breaks if doing extensive snow removal on rooftops. Like many other heavy lifting tasks, keeping your back straight and lifting with the legs are obvious yet crucial elements.

Another hazard that can go unnoticed while clearing rooftops is the possibility for electrocution and electric shock. When working near power lines, treat wires and other conductors as energized, even if they are down or appear to be insulated. An OSHA example tells the tale of two workers using a high-reach truck to remove snow and ice from a university sorority house. While working, one of workers was electrocuted after reaching out and accidentally grabbing a 12,000-volt electrical line.

In order to avoid such an incident, make sure to keep a distance of at least 10 feet from any power line and make sure all electrically powered equipment is grounded and includes a ground-fault circuit interrupter.

Serious Consequences of Not Taking Precautions
By asking these questions, you can eliminate the potential danger associated with working at heights in cold weather. There are a number of examples of what can happen if the proper safety precautions aren’t taken: A worker sustained a fatal head injury after sliding off a roof and striking his head on construction materials that were being stored below; another worker fell 30 feet to his death through an unguarded elevator shaft opening while laying grid lines and shoveling snow on a second-floor deck.

During the past 10 years, OSHA has investigated 16 serious injuries or fatalities that could have been prevented by properly prepping for snow removal. For more information regarding cold weather and the hazards associated with it, visit this site.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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