I live in the Midwest, where you can leave for work wearing a sweater because it’s 60 degrees outside and realize your mistake 8 hours later when the temperature has dropped 30 degrees and you’re scraping snow off your car in preparation for a long ride home in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This time of year, I know better than to leave the house unprepared for cold weather and icy road conditions, but are we ever truly prepared for that first blast of winter weather? Last year, our first major snowstorm fell long before the official start of winter.
According to Dr. Bill Durkin, emergency rooms soon will be packed with people who were not prepared for “the winter Olympics.”
Shoveling, brushing snow off of cars, walking along icy sidewalks, driving on icy roads; all of these activities can land you in the emergency room, advises Durkin.
“If you are out of shape, don’t exercise, are not used to physical activity or have a history of heart disease or problems, you are much better off allowing someone else to do your shoveling for you,” says Durkin, who is vice president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.
Many people who are in good shape end up suffering when the weather turns bad. Perhaps a little too confident in their physical condition, they forget to bend their knees rather than at the waist when shoveling, or make the mistake of turning at the waist to toss snow, rather than rotating their entire body.
“Don’t expect to come out of it feeling good if you don’t pay attention to body mechanics,” Durkin cautions. You might not end up in the hospital, but you could find yourself popping pain relievers and snuggling up to a heating pad for a few days.
When I was in college, and therefore thought I was indestructible, I walked to the bus stop wearing fashionable boots and a light coat and gloves, not thinking twice that the mercury in the thermometer was hovering around zero. My fingers and toes were frostbitten by the time I made it to my first class and while I didn’t lose any digits, they remind me of my folly every time the thermometer drops.
Durkin says that outdoor workers in particular end up with frozen fingers, toes and noses. It’s fairly rare that someone who is working outdoors ends up dying of hypothermia, but a number of workers suffer from frostbite, which can be disabling and disfiguring.
“People think that because they’re doing physical labor outside – construction work, shoveling, road work – they won’t get cold. Wrong!” says Durkin. “Dress in layers, so that as the body warms up, you can take a layer off without exposing yourself to cold. Wear gloves. Make sure you wear a hat, because you lose so much heat through the top of your head. If there’s wind or driving snow, wear a ski mask. Wear heavy pants and long underwear and make sure you have warm, waterproof boots. By the time you realize your toes are numb, you’re pretty far down the path to frostbite.”
He also suggests that workers be cautious about slips and falls and wear appropriate boots and shoes. “We see younger people with broken wrists and arms, where they’ve tried to brace the fall. We see older people with broken hips and legs,” says Durkin. “Sand and salt walkways, driveways and steps. Even those short, one- or two-step flights of steps can be dangerous if they’re icy or slippery. Because it’s just a step or two, people forget about them,” he adds.
The best way to deal with winter weather, Durkin notes, “is to be aware of the hazards of winter – cold, ice, snow, reduced visibility – and exercise caution.