Winter months bring the obvious hazardous weather conditions to our northern states. However, some of the most common, overlooked winter safety issues occur in the South. The number of below-freezing weather days in these areas are minimal, and snow accumulation is rare -- making it that much easier for hazards to sneak up on unprepared workers and safety directors.
What does often occur in these states are drastic temperature fluctuations in winter. I have experienced sunshine, rain and snow all within a 24-hour period in the South. The biggest culprit in the "surprise" weather category is rain that freezes overnight. When weather acts like that, it can catch you off guard and definitely affect front-line revenue in the following ways:
- Business interruption
- Increased accidents
- Potential for litigation
- Lower productivity
In an effort to help you combat winter weather-related costs and injuries, I will cover just two main topics: slips and falls and winter vehicle safety tips, as there simply isn't enough room in one article to cover all there is to know about cold weather safety in the South.
Slip and Fall Prevention Facility Preparation
Walking on ice, snow and slush in the winter months has its slippery moments, especially for folks in the southern United States who have limited experience with these conditions. For those of you who have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time on dry ground, I will only give you one piece of advice: "Don't chew gum in the winter."
Funny-business aside, these conditions must be approached thoughtfully and with a more focused frame of mind because slip and fall accidents are no joke. Here's why:
Next to traffic crashes, slips and falls kill and injure more people nationally each year than any other type of incident. Approximately 6,000 people die each year as a result of falls at home. Away from home, nearly 6,000 more people die each year as a result of falls on the job or elsewhere -- and cold conditions during winter months contribute considerably to these falls.
As a safety director an easy way of not dealing with winter slips and falls is to move to Hawaii during the cold months. However, that idea might not sit so well with your CEO (It didn't with mine).
Since tropical islands are probably not an option for you or your workers, here below are some proactive measures that should be considered, and acted upon, prior to the approach of the "Southern" winter months no later than November.
- If you do not own your building, contact your building property management to discuss ice and snow removal procedures. Be ready to make constructive suggestions in case you feel the management is not as prepared as you would like them to be. Keep the name and phone number of your landlord handy when conditions warrant a quick call.
- Make sure that you have assessed the potential hazards in the entrance area(s) leading directly into your place of business/businesses and have taken steps to minimize these hazards. For example, use water-absorbing mats, slip-proof rubber mats, warning cones and handrails for steps.
- At a minimum, stock the following items in your facility:
- 2-4 bags of salt (covers one or two entrances)
- 2-4 bags of sand (covers one or two entrances)
- 1 steel or iron rake for scraping ice off concrete walkways;
- 4-8 orange caution cones;
- Water-absorbent mats.
- In the event of freezing-rain conditions or ice, distribute the salt first, followed by sand. Place caution cones along hazardous areas, especially high traffic entranceways.
- Use water-absorbent mats inside entranceways with caution cones if floors get wet. Keep a mop handy to clean up excessive moisture.
Slip and Fall Prevention Winter Walking Safety
Following are some preventative tips that should be shared with employees prior to foul weather -- it won't do anyone any good to read these after they have already fallen. Injured people are rarely in any mood to study safety tips.
These suggestions are largely based on choices your employees will make before and after the workday, so encourage them to post a copy of this list at home (along with the one you will undoubtedly post at work):
- Shoes or boots with non-slip soles are a must. Ladies, leave those high heels at home!
- If the sidewalks and walkways are impassable and you must walk in the street, walk against traffic so that you can see oncoming vehicles. Beware of the "deer in the headlights effect," and stay as close to the curb as you can.
- Strongly consider wearing a brightly colored scarf, hat or something reflective if you have to walk in or very near the street. As an alternative, sticking reflective tape just about anywhere on your clothing can help.
- Don't wear dark, "winter" colors at night; they can make it hard for motorists to see you, especially if they aren't expecting you.
- It is important to keep warm, but be aware that wearing hats and scarves covering your ears can also distort, muffle or even eliminate the sounds of approaching motor vehicles. Snow that has accumulated into large drifts can also have this effect.
- When crossing a street, make sure that approaching vehicles have come to a complete stop before you step off the curb. Due to poor road conditions, motorists may not be able to stop at traffic signals or slow down for pedestrians who have the right of way.
- Bending your knees a little and taking slower and shorter steps increases traction and can greatly reduce your chances of falling. Stop occasionally to break momentum.
Winter Vehicle Traction Tips
An important revenue loss component often overlooked by employers is winter driving. Educating employees on winter driving techniques/methods can have a positive effect on the bottom line, especially in states where people are not used to driving in extreme weather. Some storms create impassable roads and driving should not be attempted.
But some conditions have more bark than bite -- and if employees feel that they do not have the skills or knowledge to operate their car in mild icy or snowy conditions, they will lack the confidence to come to work. When employees don't come into the workplace, it obviously affects productivity.
Here are some winter driving tips that will be useful in getting your employees out of their driveway and into the workplace safely. Again, these may be most effective if sent home with employees.
- If your car will be parked for some time while it is snowing, try to back into your garage or parking space. When it's time to move, pulling out forward will be easier than backing out. For rear-drive cars, the bare spot where the car is standing may provide enough initial traction to get you going. For front-drive cars, backing up in snow is more difficult than for rear-drive cars so plan ahead.
- If you have rear-drive, load your trunk with 200-300 pounds of sand or other similar heavy objects that you have in the garage. You want as much weight as possible over the drive wheels (Though you may be tempted at times, please do not use your children as weights in the trunk). Front-drive cars perform well in snowy conditions because the weight of the engine is over the drive wheels.
- If you appear to be stuck in your parking spot, try rocking the car with gentle backward and forward motions. Never change gears while moving or accelerating. If you move forward/backward for a limited distance and then stop, reverse your direction in your own tracks and hit it again a little harder. Avoid sitting in one spot and spinning your tires. This only heats up the tires and digs you in deeper. If you have a standard differential without traction control, it will be possible for one wheel to spin while the other is motionless. A burlap bag, grocery bag, cardboard carton or your best leather coat (turned inside out so you don't ruin it) placed under that spinning wheel may get you going. Carry a bag of cat litter (preferably unused) -- a little litter under the tire may provide assistance for a spinning wheel.
- Make all moves slowly and carefully. This includes: starting, stopping, turning, speeding up and slowing down. Sudden moves and quick directional changes cause trouble when the traction is poor, especially on ice. Notice: Don't assume your four-wheel drive truck "Kin go evryware!" Contrary to popular belief, a four-wheel drive will slide and spin out just as easily on ice as any two-wheel drive vehicle.
- If the main traffic lane is very slippery and you're having trouble getting up a hill, try driving slowly with two wheels on the edge of the roadway. If you have a standard differential without traction control, only one side will have the geared traction wheel, so you may have to try the opposite side of the road if one side doesn't work.
- Try to avoid going up a hill right behind another car. If it loses traction and starts to slow down, you will more than likely get to know that driver better than you ever wanted.
- When approaching a hill, follow the other car at a significant distance and then pick your own pace and maintain it. Inertia is your friend while going up a hill with poor traction.
- If your drive wheels start to spin or slide while going up a hill, ease off on the accelerator slightly and then gently resume speed.
- To correct a skid, TURN WHEEL IN THE DIRECTION OF THE SKID. If your rear end starts sliding to the right, turn the wheel to the right. If your rear end starts sliding to the left, turn your wheel to the left. Do not apply brakes while in a skid. When your wheels are locked, your car can turn into an Olympic bobsled quickly. No medals will be awarded after your run, no matter how impressive.
- Keep an ice scraper and a commercial windshield de-icer in your car.
- Be sure to use your four-way flashers if you are moving much slower than other traffic, stopped in or near a traffic lane, or making an unusual maneuver, such as a U-turn (or if you simply must do doughnuts on the ice).
If these tips prevent just one employee from a serious injury it was well worth your time and effort to read them. By implementing these ideas you can:
- 1. Reduce winter accidents and the costs associated with them;
- 2. Help employees get to and from work safely, thereby minimizing productivity loss;
- 3. Create a safer work environment for employees in winter months.
Sidebar: Water-absorbent Mats: What to Look For
A water absorption design that draws in and holds moisture, preventing puddles from forming. Ask: How does it attract and keep moisture?
- A high-absorbency capacity. Ask: How much water does it hold?
- A low-maintenance safety solution. Ask: What do I have to do to take care of it?
- A durable material that resists mold, mildew and rot (and the odors they bring). Ask: What is it made of and how long will it last?
- A non-skid backing that keeps it in place with no slipping. Ask: Does it have a non-skid backing and can you show me how it works?
Dieter Schifferdecker is corporate safety manager for Concentra Inc., the nation's largest provider of out-of-network bill review services to the group health marketplace. He works to increase employee safety and reduce adverse health exposures and their associated costs. He also deals with any other issue somebody has a notion to throw on his desk especially when he isn't looking.