Eight Tips to Keep Building Occupants Safe During Winter

While the calendar may indicate that winter is close to being over, many states are still reeling from massive snowfall this winter. This year's historic winter in many parts of the country is a prime example of how unpredictable weather patterns are, reinforcing the importance of keeping a workplace safety plan ready. The harsh impact of snow, ice, wind, and cold temperatures during the winter season can present a host of problems to facility managers. To ensure that a building is safe for occupants even during an epic winter, facility managers must plan in advance.

While the weather itself is out of anyone's control, preparing a building for the elements is not. From simple tips, including deicing walking paths and parking spaces, to ensuring good indoor air quality, there are a number of things that can be done to help reduce the impact of winter:

1. Start with snow removal. If you're located in an area that is likely to receive snow or ice during the winter months, ensure your snow removal contract is current and has adequate services built in. In particular, parking areas, walkways, and all entrances and exits need to be plowed or shoveled and treated as soon as possible following inclement weather.

2. Prevent slip-and-fall accidents. Winter weather can be dangerous and lead to slips and falls. Accidents involving slips, trips, and falls send 9 million people to the hospital each year and are a leading cause of workers' compensation claims, costing an average of approximately $20,000 per accident. Maintaining your facility's grounds for pedestrians to walk safely should be a top priority. Find the right deicer that removes snow and ice from walkways, parking lots, roads, and pedestrian pathways without harming surfaces, people, or animals. Applying them in advance of storms will reduce risk and improve the safety of those at your facility.

3. Winterize windows and storm drains. Caulking windows to help fill in gaps and cracks will help save on heating bills and prevent moisture from entering the walls. Also, ensure that storm drains are secure and free of debris so that melting snow has a clear avenue for expulsion. By constantly monitoring windows and drains, a facility manager can prevent expensive, long-term damage to the building that can be caused by water and ice damage.

4. Know your products. Knowing the basic chemistry of products and how they can affect your facility is important. For example, not all deicers are created equally – you need to know what's in them to determine their effectiveness, hazard traits, and pollution potential. It's important to understand safe use, storage, handling, and disposal. Consider the impact certain deicers may have on walkways, interior surfaces, vegetation, and the environment as a whole. Proper usage and evaluation of chemicals can minimize long-term damage.

5. Understand total cost. Knowing your products will help you understand total cost of ownership. For instance, while sodium chloride (rock salt) is commonly used and less expensive per pound, it can be a relatively inefficient deicer and harmful to concrete, stone surfaces, and vegetation. Additionally, potentially damaging products may mean added labor costs and surface replacements or repairs both outside and inside your facility.

6. Safeguard your indoor environmental quality. Cold temperatures force facility managers to create tightly sealed indoor environments until spring. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, levels of contaminants and pollutants in indoor air are between three and five times higher than outdoor air. Use cleaning, breakroom, maintenance, and office supplies that don't emit vapors or distribute contaminants, especially during winter, to prevent accumulation and buildup of contaminants in the indoor air.

7. Ensure the safety of your technology/data. Power outages can happen when inclement weather strikes. Make sure you regularly back up company data, either through a hosted, off-site service or on site. It's also important to check that your back-up system is working properly prior to when a potential storm hits.

8. Implement a telecommuting program. Businesses that have the flexibility to let their employees work remotely should have a telecommuting protocol in place when employees are unable to safely get to work during or after a storm. This includes making sure your staff has the proper equipment to do their job effectively from home. If you already have a telecommuting policy, be sure to remind employees to utilize it during winter.

Planning and prevention are the best steps to avoiding and mitigating any emergencies. Facility managers must communicate established procedures to their staff and share proactive solutions with building occupants so everyone is prepared in the event of an emergency.

Bob Risk is the national safety, health and wellness manager for Staples, Inc.

Posted by Bob Risk on Mar 10, 2015