Getting to work safely on icy, snow packed roads isn’t the only thing employees have to worry about when it comes to working during the blustery winter months. Severe winter weather can raise the risk for a wide variety of work related illnesses, injuries, and even fatalities. While it is true that not all cold weather related workplace illnesses, injuries and fatalities can be prevented, employers and workers alike should educate themselves and take the necessary precautions in order to reduce the risk as much as possible. One of the first steps employees and employers can take in order to help prevent tragedies from occurring is to recognize the hazards that winter weather can bring.
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Common Hazards Associated with Working in Winter Weather
Winter weather can produce circumstances that cause otherwise safe conditions to become hazardous. Slippery surfaces, high winds, the accumulation of sleet and snow, and extreme cold temperatures can raise the risk for workplace injuries significantly. Not all hazards are as obvious as many people might think, however.
Poisoning may not be the first thing people think of when it comes to winter weather related work injuries. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of death during the winter months. Common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning include faulty furnaces, generators, and running vehicles. In order to help prevent workers from becoming ill or losing their lives to carbon monoxide poisoning, employers should have furnaces and generators inspected regularly to ensure that they are working properly and are properly ventilated. Additionally, vehicles should only be left running when parked in well ventilated areas.
Exposure to extremely cold temperatures can cause a wide array of health problems and in severe cases, even death. Workers can prevent cold stress by dressing in layers of winter clothing, wearing protective clothing like gloves, face masks, hats and insulated footwear. Additional ways to help prevent cold stress include:
- Eat and drink warm, high calorie foods and beverages like soups, coffee, and pasta. Avoid alcoholic beverages which can fool the body into believing it is warmer than what it actually is.
- Take frequent breaks in warm, dry areas- preferably sheltered buildings or vehicles.
- Know the signs of cold stress including reddening or numbness of the extremities, confusion, lack of coordination, shivering, and a sudden feeling of warmth.
- Adopt the buddy system so that partners can watch each other for signs of cold stress.
Slips and Falls
Many surfaces that would be safe during the warm, dry summer months can cause serious injuries and even become death traps when covered in snow or ice. Employers and workers alike can help prevent slips and falls during the winter months by:
- Ensuring that proper footwear with good traction is worn.
- Removing snow and ice from walkways and parking lots.
- Remembering that when snow and ice get tracked inside, they melt creating wet conditions that can make hard surfaces slippery. Placing large rugs in entryways can help ensure that entryways stay dry.
- Being conscious of the location of manholes and any unguarded shafts or openings in the ground and remembering that snow may make these hazards inconspicuous.
- Ensuring that adequate fall protection is worn when removing snow from rooftops or working in elevated areas.
Snow and ice can add extra weight to otherwise stable objects, causing them to fall or cave in. While hard, sharp objects like icicles can cause puncture wounds and eye injuries, falling rooftops and other heavy objects can cause fractures, crushing, and even suffocation. Whenever possible, remove excess snow and ice in and around the work area.
Downed power lines and trees and other objects that come into contact with power lines can cause serious injuries and even death. Workers should always maintain a distance of at least 10 feet from power lines, and always assume they are live, even if they appear to be insulated or not functioning. Additional precautions include:
- Be sure all electrical equipment is properly grounded.
- When working on mechanical equipment, follow required lock out tag out procedures to isolate any energy.
- Use non-conductive poles on snow rakes
Snowblowers and other mechanical equipment can be extremely dangerous any time of year, but especially so during the winter months. The risk for workplace injury can be reduced, however, by:
- Ensuring that workers are educated about how to properly use all equipment
- Never using hands to clear snow or ice away from mechanical parts even when they are disconnected from their power source. Doing so could cause serious injuries and even amputations because mechanical equipment builds up stored energy when moving parts are jammed.
- Ensuring that workers wear proper eye protection and other protective gear.