12 Items to Prevent Winter Weather Incidents and Illnesses (and You May Already Have Most of Them)

Allowing time for workers to acclimate to working in cold weather and limiting the length of outdoor shifts help prevent cold-related injuries. The right types of protective clothing are also essential.

Ice, sleet, snow, and cold weather create many different safety hazards for employees. Preparing for inclement weather before it arrives will help ensure that safety items are readily available, allowing employees to take the necessary precautions to keep themselves safe, no matter what task they need to perform.

For children, severe winter weather often means a day off of school. But unlike schools, most facilities can't take a snow day. Having a plan that identifies winter risks and outlines the facility's plans and procedures will help minimize those risks and prevent common injuries and illnesses that are caused by cold and inclement weather.

Just like children grabbing their coats, hats, mittens, and boots from the closet to go sled riding as soon as a snow day has been declared, employees who have the following tools at their disposal can make the most of any duty that requires them to be outdoors.

Mittens, Hats, and Socks

Anyone working (or playing) in cold weather needs to be aware of the effects that extremely low temperatures have on the body. Cases of cold stress, hypothermia, and frostbite have declined slightly in the past 20 years due to education and the availability of better types of outdoor clothing, but for employees who need to work outdoors in bad weather, the risk of these injuries is still very real.

Allowing time for workers to acclimate to working in cold weather and limiting the length of outdoor shifts help prevent cold-related injuries. The right types of protective clothing are also essential.

Doctors and scientists have debunked the myth that we lose most of our body heat through our head, but it is still important to cover your head, ears, and face to protect them from frostbite. Consider the work that will need to be done when choosing coats, hats, and scarves. Coats with hoods may seem more convenient, but they can limit vision and mobility. Gloves may afford more dexterity and are essential for certain types of work, but mittens will keep hands warmer longer. Scarves may get caught on ladder rungs or snag on sharp objects and may need to be tucked into coats. Even if it means keeping track of multiple pieces of protective gear, it is important to select protective items that will not impede your work or safety.

Cold weather affects the body’s extremities first. In addition to hats and mittens, keeping feet warm and dry is essential. But it can be difficult, especially if the employee needs to work in deep snow. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Keeping spare dry socks and boots on hand to rotate during breaks or between shifts will help prevent cold-related injuries.

Flashlights, Sand, Blankets, and First Aid Kits
Last January, Winter Storm Jonas hovered over much of the Northeast, dumping mountains of ice and snow over the entire region. Although residents who live in the Northeast are generally prepared for bad weather, this storm happened very quickly, leaving thousands of drivers stranded on roadways. The National Guard, Red Cross, and other organizations worked with tow truck drivers and municipal workers to bring food, water, blankets, and other resources to drivers who were stranded at rest stops, parking lots, and warming shelters.

Before this storm, it had been a fairly mild winter for most of the area, and many people were ill-prepared because they took the weather for granted and headed out without adequate supplies.

Employees who must drive as part of their job duties may need to be taught how to drive safely in bad weather if they are not accustomed to driving in icy or snowy conditions. Providing a bag with safety items such as food, water, blankets, flashlights, plastic bags, and road flares that can be used if their vehicles become stranded or disabled will help them if they find themselves in a situation that prevents them from getting to their destination safely. Sand, cat litter, and shovels are additional items that may be considered for standard issue on fleet vehicles.

Facilities that manage fleets should consider monitoring garages and other areas where vehicles are stored for carbon monoxide. Establishing protocols that prohibit vehicles from idling in garages or mandating that doors remain open when vehicles are running indoors can help minimize carbon monoxide levels.

Cleats, Safety Glasses and Fall Harnesses
Strains, overexertion, heart attacks, falls, and broken bones are all common injuries that occur when people remove snow or ice from parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, and rooftops. The incident rates for each of these injuries increases with age.

Even the simple act of walking on a snow or ice covered surface is hazardous. Wearing ice cleats will provide better traction on slippery walkways than standard shoes or boots. Gloves or mittens will help to avoid the tendency to keep your hands in your pockets, a practice that can hinder efforts to maintain balance.

Wearing safety glasses when using a snow blower will protect eyes from flying objects. Choosing glasses with polarized lenses will further shield the eyes from the glare reflecting off of snow and ice-covered areas. When removing snow or ice from rooftops, employees should be extra diligent about wearing fall harnesses and using other fall prevention equipment.

If outside contractors will remove snow or ice from parking lots, review their snow removal policies each season. To help prevent slip and fall injuries, ensure that snow or ice will be removed at least one hour prior to the start and end of shifts.

Tissues and Sanitizers
Colds and the flus can strike at any time, but both are especially prevalent during cold weather months. Although the best practice is to stay home if you are sick, many employees do not. And the work that they are to perform that day doesn’t wait for their return. Use toolbox talks, posters, emails, and other reminders to review the importance of handwashing and other sanitation precautions, such as sneezing into your elbow and covering your mouth when you cough. The CDC and other government agencies have several varieties of posters and other teaching tools available at no cost.

Stocking hand and surface sanitizing products, as well as facial tissue, can help prevent the spread of illnesses, especially in offices, cafeterias, conference and training rooms, and other areas where people work in close proximity. It is also a good idea to review company procedures for working with reduced staff to ensure that all essential functions can still be performed safely.

Winter weather is sometimes unpredictable, and waiting until the forecast calls for snow or ice may be too late. Stocking necessary items now and reviewing winter safety protocols before the temperature drops will help to prevent injuries and minimize winter illnesses.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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