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How to Protect Against Winter Weather Hazards, Extreme Cold

A person shovels snow from a brick sidewalk

Encountering weather hazards is unavoidable in many parts of the country, making planning for a winter storm and protecting your workers from cold stress critical.

Prep Your Worksite for Disaster

Winter storms can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to a blizzard that lasts for several days. Storms are accompanied by dangerously low temperatures and, sometimes, by strong winds, icing, sleet and freezing rain. As an employer, you need to begin preparing for potential property damage and interference to your business operations.

According to the National Weather Service, about 70 percent of injuries during winter storms result from vehicle accidents, and about 25 percent of injuries result from being caught in a storm. Learning how to prepare for winter’s nastiest weather and avoid hazards when it occurs will help keep you and your employees safe.

Common winter threats to your organization include:

  • Employee injuries and illnesses.
  • Power loss.
  • Communications disruption.
  • Supply chain disruption.
  • Property damage.
  • Transportation accidents.
  • Compromised access to facilities.

Winter Storm Prep

​There are many simple precautions companies can take before the weather event occurs, said Bob Boyd, former president and CEO of Agility Recovery, a provider of business continuity and disaster recovery solutions. Mitigating actions include:

  • Reviewing your insurance coverage. Boyd recommends sitting down with your business insurance agent at least once a year, to be clear about what is actually covered in your policy. “You can’t buy the specific types of business-disruption coverage you need the day after you get hit by a snowstorm or your roof collapses,” he said.
  • Determining your greatest risk potentials. “What do you do if you lose heat, or your pipes freeze, or you lose access to your facility? Do you have two or three communication redundancies if there’s a communication breakdown?”
  • Establishing and communicating an inclement-weather attendance policy for employees. “The last thing you want to do is put your staff in harm’s way,” he emphasized. This needs to be communicated ahead of time so employees know what to expect when work is delayed or called off. “I would never jeopardize employees’ safety just to get extra work out of them. If it looks like it will be dangerous, send them home or let them stay home, so they don’t get stuck on the roads with everybody else.”
  • Meeting with key vendors and discussing winter-weather preparedness.
  • Identifying who is responsible for clearing snow and ice.
  • Establishing a procedure for restoring electrical service. Boyd stressed the importance of knowing your electrical-load demands ahead of time. “Very few businesses actually know how big a generator they need to maintain power in their facility, and you can’t order one without knowing that. Any electrician can tell you how big a generator you need within 15 seconds of looking at your electrical panel.” But you’ll have difficulty finding an electrician the day a disaster occurs, he added.
  • Determining whether alternate access to your business is needed in the event of inclement weather.
  • Filling the gas tanks of any critical business vehicles.
  • Stockpiling emergency supplies. Be sure to include rock salt—or, preferably, kitty litter—and snow-removal equipment, Boyd said.
  • Servicing generators and topping off fuel reserves.
  • Ensuring that all battery-powered devices have new batteries or crank/solar chargers.
  • Inspecting and servicing heating equipment.
  • Finding out which local broadcasters will publish your business’s operating status to the public. “They want to do it; you just need to contact them,” Boyd said.
  • Ensuring redundant communication channels. Start simple and make a list of every employee’s home and cellphone numbers, e-mail addresses, their relatives’ and spouses’ contact info, and backup contact info. “Now you have a variety of phone numbers and e-mail addresses you can use to reach your staff,” Boyd said. He urged employers to do more than make a list and actually conduct emergency-contact drills with all staff.
  • Establishing remote access to your website to update visitors about the organization’s status. “Most people wouldn’t know how to access their website to alert customers about their operating status.” Boyd advises businesses to designate an employee who has access to the site to make bad-weather announcements on it.

Zero Hour: the Storm Is Imminent

Now is the time to execute your plan. “Be clear and decisive, and trust your plan,” said Boyd.

Three things to keep in mind while sheltering from a storm:

  • Stay informed on the storm’s status, and activate your crisis-communication plan.
  • Ensure your employees’ and customers’ safety and well‐being. Decide whether to activate your emergency-evacuation or shelter-in-place plan.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.

Prepare to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. If your plan is to wait for rescue services to come by, you’re going to be cold and hungry, Boyd said.

After the Storm

You’ve survived the storm—now what?

“Do not get in your car and drive until conditions are safe to do so,” he warned. “Nobody knows how to drive on ice.”

When you have the chance, inspect your facility for downed power lines, snow accumulation on the roof, icy walkways and parking lots, and frozen pipes. “Notify the critical people about any damage sustained, and update the local media and your customers of your operating status.”

Protecting Workers From Cold Hazards

Whether working outdoors or not, people in some U.S. regions will have to brave the cold this winter. Working in cold environments, especially for extended periods, can lead to cold-stress problems such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot.

“Protective clothing is the most important way to avoid cold stress,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advises. What you wear makes a difference. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet. “Wool, silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation even when wet,” OSHA said.

When working in cold environments, the agency recommends:

  • Wearing at least three layers of clothing, constituting an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic, to wick moisture away from the body; a middle layer of wool or synthetic, to provide insulation even when wet; and an outer wind- and rain-protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Donning a hat or hood. Up to 40 percent of body heat can be lost when the head is left exposed.
  • Wearing insulated boots or other footwear.
  • Keeping a change of dry clothing available in case work clothes become wet.
  • With the exception of the wicking layer, do not wear tight clothing. Loose material allows better ventilation to keep heat away from the body.
  • Do not underestimate the wetting effects of perspiration. Oftentimes, wicking away and venting sweat and heat are more important than protecting the body from rain or snow, OSHA said.

It also advises workers to drink plenty of liquids but to avoid caffeine and alcohol.

If possible, heavy work should be scheduled during the warmer parts of the day.

Workers should:

  • Take frequent breaks out of the cold.
  • Try to work in pairs, to keep an eye on each other and to watch for signs of cold stress.
  • Avoid fatigue, since energy is needed to keep muscles warm.

Engineering controls can be effective in reducing the risk of cold stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that employers:

  • Schedule maintenance and repair jobs for warmer months in cold areas.
  • Schedule cold jobs for the warmer part of the day.
  • Reduce the physical demands on workers.
  • Use relief workers or assign extra crew for long, demanding jobs.
  • Provide warm liquids to workers.
  • Provide workers with warm areas to use during breaks.
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress.
  • Heed wind chill charts, to prevent employees from getting frostbite.
  • Provide cold stress training that includes information about worker risk, prevention, symptoms, monitoring, treatment and personal protective equipment.

“Employers should use appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment and work practices to reduce the risk of cold stress,” OSHA states. “All of these measures should be incorporated into relevant health and safety plans.” 

Preventing Wintertime Slips, Falls

Snow and ice bring an increased risk of injury caused by slips and falls due to slippery sidewalks, parking lots and work areas.

Generally, injuries suffered traveling to and from the workplace are not deemed to have occurred in the course of employment, but if your employee falls and is injured in your parking lot, it’s likely the individual will be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits—regardless of who’s responsible for snow removal.

The suggestions below, compiled by Bloomington, Minn., workplace comp insurer SFM, will help your employees avoid slips and falls this winter.

  • Consider illuminating walking paths.
  • Mark trouble spots, such as snow banks and slippery curbs, with police tape.
  • Remember to adequately salt walkways.
  • Be sure to remove re-melted snow and ice after applying winter salt.
  • Instead of trying to shovel and salt all of the entrances, close selected ones for the winter.
  • Ask all of your employees to enter and exit from one or two doors. That will make it easier to ensure snow is removed, ice doesn’t build up and conditions are less hazardous.
  • Mop all entrances and exits regularly, to prevent water accumulation.

Talk with employees about things they can do to avoid slips and falls this winter. Tips include:

  • Avoid wearing high heels outside. Flat shoes with slip-resistant soles or boots are best.
  • When walking across ice or snow, take short, flat steps.
  • Walk; don’t run. Slowing down will decrease the chances of a slip and fall.
  • When entering a building, clean your footwear thoroughly on the floor mats or carpet.
  • Use walkways that have been salted or shoveled.
  • Discourage taking shortcuts over snow piles and in areas where snow and ice removal is not feasible.
  • When entering a building, remove snow and water from footwear, so as not to create wet, slippery conditions indoors.
  • Spread salt or sand when you see icy spots. You can help reduce the number of falls by taking action.