Preparing for Old Man Winter’s Arrival

Preparing for Old Man Winter's Arrival

Taking a look at winter hazards and five important safety tips to help mitigate them.

As winter descends upon us, a light dusting of snow can add a little magic to your day as well as a lot of hazards. Headquartered in Maine, MEMIC has more than a little experience addressing winter hazards as one of the leading workers’ compensation insurers in the Northeast. Let’s have a look at some of the most common winter hazards and five important safety tips to help mitigate each of them. Injuries cost a lot of pain and sorrow, and following these tips will save you many headaches and could even save your life.

Getting to the Car

The most dangerous thing you do every day is likely going out for a drive, and in the winter, the risk is compounded. Just getting to your vehicle can be a formidable task, almost comical if it weren’t so perilous. For vehicle entry and egress, remember to:

1. Wear appropriate footwear for outdoor winter weather. Bring along other shoes and put them on once indoors. Consider wearing traction enhancing devices like Yaktrax and STABILicers.

2. Park in authorized or cleared parking spaces. Avoid spaces where ice is likely to lurk.

3. Keep your hands free and use the door, steering wheel, or other surface for support.

4. Do not carry too much, and place items into your vehicle, while in a supported stance, before you enter. When exiting, grab your items once you’re out of the vehicle rather than hoisting them out with you.

5. Take short steps at a slower pace. This helps to maximize footwear contact with the ground and keeps you more centered over your base of support.

MEMIC provides a lot of education on preventing slips, trips, and falls (STFs) as they constitute our leading injury loss source in both claim frequency and severity. In a typical month, we may see 460 STF claims, but that increases to more than 700 per month when factoring in ice and parking lot/vehicle-related STFs. It is not uncommon for a STF to cost more than $125,000. We’ve even seen someone rendered a paraplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury from a slip and fall in a parking lot with the medical and wage replacement costs at nearly $1.5 million. For the safety of yourself and others, please sand and salt diligently.

Winter Driving and Tire Safety

So, you’ve made it to your vehicle: congratulations. Maybe that has relieved a little pressure? Now it’s time to think about tire safety and winter driving:

1. Select the appropriate tire for the conditions in which you are driving. Snow tires provide better traction in the snow than all-season tires, but they need to be changed seasonally.

2. Frequent inspection, regular tire rotation, and proper inflation pressure are vital for tires and vehicle performance.

3. Allow plenty of time for travel and familiarize yourself with weather conditions and the route you are driving, in advance, with maps and directions. Allow time to clear the snow off your vehicle—particularly snow/ice accumulation from the windshield—and always check to ensure the tail pipe is not covered or clogged with snow to prevent possible carbon monoxide exposure.

4. Cell phones and electronic devices need to be put away when operating a vehicle to avoid distracted driving, throughout the year and especially during winter.

5. Keep sand and a shovel in your vehicle in case you need to add traction to ground surfaces that are icy and dicey. Keep an emergency travel kit in your vehicle that includes the following: a flashlight, jumper cables, kitty litter or other coarse friction enhancing material, snow brush/ice scraper, warning devices, blankets, energy-boosting snacks, and water.

On the cusp of winter, mid-October to early December is a dangerous time for drivers as it’s deer mating season, otherwise known as the rut. Deer are typically most active during dusk and dawn, so please pay attention to the amber caution signs placed intentionally where wildlife activity is the highest. If you see a deer crossing the road, more than likely there will be more, so be alert for more. If you are in one of the 1.6 million deer-vehicle collisions that occur each year, do not immediately exit your vehicle to check on the wounded deer. Don’t put yourself at risk of being hit by another moving vehicle as well as possibly being attacked by the injured animal.

Shoveling Snow

If you are assigned snow shoveling duty at home or at work, remember to:

1. Dress appropriately for the conditions. Don several layers to help maintain comfort and minimize sweating. Wear personal protective gear such as high visibility apparel per employer policy.

2. Warm up to prepare your muscles by performing simple movements and stretches prior to shoveling. Start slow and take periodic rest breaks. Pay close attention to what your body is telling, you as shoveling can elevate stress on your cardiovascular system.

3. Choose the right shovel for yourself and the conditions. A snow shovel with a small blade and bent handle tends to minimize effort and extreme bending.

4. Plan accordingly and start early, as fresh snow tends to be lighter and easier to move. Venture out periodically during a long storm to keep shoveled loads more manageable.

5. Protect your back by engaging your powerful leg muscles with a slight bend at the knee and assume a wide stance for improved balance. Avoid deep bending at the waist and limit twisting by turning in the direction you are throwing the snow. Push the snow whenever possible.

Each year, about 11,500 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that happened while shoveling and about 4,300 people are injured using a snow blower. Most snow blower injuries occur while trying to clear snow and ice jams from the collection auger or discharge chute. If a machine is clogged, always power it down. Shut off gasoline models and unplug electric ones. Never—ever—use your hand to clear the intake auger or discharge chute. Use the handle provided with most new snow blowers, stick, ice scraper, or other tool to remove ice and packed snow.

In general, leave snow and ice removal from roofs to the professionals, and at the very least, follow these safety tips:

1. If possible, avoid going on the roof and instead work from the ground using a roof rake.

2. Whether working from the ground or atop the roof, perform a hazard assessment to account for dangers such as skylights and tripping hazards.

3. When clearing snow from a rooftop approach, evaluate the roof for snow load and potential collapse with added weight from workers and equipment.

4. Think fall protection and use the appropriate safeguarding system for the existing conditions.

5. Work in small teams or pairs and avoid working alone.

Winter Illness

We’ve talked about some key hazards of snow and ice (two forms rendered when water reaches its freezing point temperature). Now, we’ll discuss steps to avoid hypothermia that occurs when your body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) which can certainly happen when working in cold conditions:

1. Don’t wear clothing that is wet or damp. It’s just as important to stay dry as it is to stay warm in cold weather.

2. Avoid overheating and excessive sweating by dressing in layers with a base layer that wicks away perspiration, a middle layer for insulation, and an outer layer that’s water and wind resistant, then remove or add clothing depending on your exertion level.

3. Always bring extra clothing just in case your clothing does get wet or damp, and be aware of changing weather conditions when working outdoors.

4. Wear appropriate hand, foot, and head covering that are well insulated and waterproof.

5. Stay well hydrated and maintain energy levels through proper nutrition.

Winter Footwear

Let’s go a little more in-depth on winter footwear and slip/fall prevention as it bears repeating:

1. Get a grip on maintaining balance by wearing footwear with a high traction outsole or supplement footwear with traction enhancing devices (spikes, cleats, grips) suited for the terrain.

2. Choose insulated footwear that’s breathable and waterproof if exposed to wet conditions.

3. Take it slow, adjust your stride, and pay attention to surface conditions while walking.

4. Avoid walking on surfaces that are covered with snow, ice, or slush.

5. Always consider the type of surface you may encounter when choosing your footwear. Remember, slips occur when there is not enough friction between what is on your feet and the surface underfoot.

The winter season offers a lot of enjoyment for outdoor enthusiasts, but it can also spell disaster for the unprepared. Snow and cold are both spelled with four letters; follow the five safety tips for the most common winter hazards so you don’t end up uttering other four-letter-words in dismay. Don’t let Old Man Winter hold you in his icy grip—be prepared.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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