Tips to Winterize Your Workplace Safety Plan

Tips to Winterize Your Workplace Safety Plan

While safety prep should begin well before the first frost covers the ground, it’s never too late to make sure safety precautions are set for whatever winter brings.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data, ice-, sleet- and snow-related occupational injuries and illnesses resulting in at least one day away from work occurred at a rate of 1.8 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2017.

Cold weather safety should be top of mind for the nation’s nearly 31 million small businesses and their 60 million workers. While safety prep should begin well before the first frost covers the ground, it’s never too late to make sure safety precautions are set for whatever winter brings.

While outdoor workers are most at-risk for winter weather-related injuries due to their exposure to the elements, indoor workers also face cold-weather hazards. As part of a winter-weather safety plan, small business owners should identify and assess potential hazards for workers in both outdoor and indoor environments, then determine how to mitigate those risks.

Here are some considerations small business owners should keep in mind to protect their workers during the colder winter months:

Outdoor workers
First and foremost, those who primarily work outside during cold-weather months must be dressed appropriately to stay warm. This includes water-resistant coats and boots, mittens and gloves, several layers of loose-fitting clothing, and hats, scarves or balaclava that cover the face and mouth. Clothing is the first line of defense against the most common cold weather injuries – trench foot, hypothermia and frostbite.

Trench foot is a foot injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But it can occur in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees if feet stay wet for too long. Symptoms typically include reddening skin, tingling, pain swelling, numbness, cramping and blisters.

Hypothermia occurs during prolonged exposure to cool or cold temperatures that cause the body to lose heat quicker than it can produce it and make body temperatures drop below 95 degrees, according to the CDC. It can happen even in temperatures above 40 degrees. If the body’s temperature stays too low for too long, it affects the brain and renders a victim unable to think clearly or move well. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. The condition can lead to death.

Frostbite happens when the body is exposed to the cold for so long that layers of skin freeze and the body loses feeling and color in affected areas. It can cause  permanent damage and sometimes even requires amputation. The most common spots for frostbite are the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Early symptoms include redness or pain in any skin area followed by white or grayish-yellow discoloration, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness.

Outdoor workers should try to stay as dry as possible and take regular breaks to warm up either inside or in sheltered, dry spaces. Small business owners should try to schedule outdoor work in cold areas for warmer months or warmer times of the day; cut back on workers’ physical demands; bring in relief workers or extra workers for tough and time-consuming jobs; and provide plenty of warm liquids to workers.

Outdoor workers also face slipping hazards. Wet and icy patches can cause slips, trips and falls. Small business owners or managers must clean up and de-ice entry ways, parking lots and other areas where injuries could occur. They should re-route workers around pools of standing or frozen water until those areas can be mopped up or de-iced.

What’s most important is for small business owners to have a rapid response plan in place. They should make sure employees know how to recognize the signs of cold-stress illnesses and what to do to help themselves or their co-workers. In the event of an actual or suspected medical emergency, the first call should always be to 911, but employees also need basic first aid training so they can be active and helpful before the professionals arrive.

Indoor workers
Workers that are lucky enough to be inside on frigid days also face potential cold-weather hazards. Even with the heat on, some workers may feel chilly and opt to use personal space heaters to keep themselves warm.

Small business owners who allow space heaters must make sure they are used properly. Space heaters should be placed on flat surfaces and kept at least three feet away from flammable materials, such as clothing or paper. They should never be left on while unattended. Workers should only use space heaters that turn off if tipped over and that carry a safety certification label from an independent testing organization, such as the UL mark from Underwriters Laboratories.

Even though indoor workers aren’t out in the elements, snow, ice and slush can impact the office or other indoor work environment. Snowy boots and muddy shoes can track on floors and create slippery surfaces inside, especially on marble or tile floors. That means managers should plan for more clean-up duty than usual and make sure water or condensation are promptly wiped up. Managers should make sure workers have a place to stow wet boots or umbrellas near the office entrance to help contain any water-based messes. Businesses should also use “wet surface” signs and/or safety cones to warn people of potential areas where they could slip, trip or fall. Utilizing carpet runners at the front entrance can help employees remove excess water from their shoes or boots and thus reduce the potential of slipping on the floor.

Shared hazards
Indoor and outdoor worksites can both be hampered by areas where snow impedes entries and exits. However, business owners and managers should refrain from asking workers to perform tasks for which they may not have the proper training or physical condition, such as shoveling snow or operating tools like snow blowers. If clearing paths to the workplace is part of an employee’s job description, it is critical he or she receives training on how to safely do these tasks. In some cases it may be best to hire an outside company that specializes in performing this type of work.

Fostering a safe and comfortable work environment requires commitment every day of the year, but especially when winter weather is a factor. By following the tips above, small business owners can help keep their employees safe when temperatures plunge.

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