Winter weather has arrived in most of the US. To prevent injuries, illnesses, and fatalities OSHA advises “Plan. Equip. Train.” especially during severe storms. In addition to cold stress, there are other winter weather-related hazards that workers may be exposed to such as snow removal, working near downed or damaged power lines, and driving in the snow.
Just as OSHA suggests, proper training is vital to ensure workers are safe this time of year. It is every employer’s responsibility to have a plan in place for the winter hazards that employees may encounter. Further, they must equip all workers to recognize and utilize safety measures.
Some winter weather-related hazards include:
- Slips on Snow and Ice
- Shoveling Snow
- Using Powered Equipment including Snow Blowers
- Clearing Snow from Roofs and Working at Heights
- Repairing Downed or Damaged Power Lines
- Working Near Downed or Damaged power lines
- Winter Driving
- Work Zone Traffic Safety
- Being stranded in a Vehicle
These hazards fall into three main categories: snow & ice, power lines, and vehicle safety.
Snow & Ice:
To prevent slips, trips, and falls, employers should clear walking surfaces of snow and ice, and spread deicer, as quickly as possible after a winter storm. In addition, wear proper footwear when walking on snow or ice. A pair of insulated and water-resistant boots with good rubber treads is a must for walking during or after a winter storm. Keeping a pair of rubber over-shoes with good treads which fit over your street shoes is a good idea during the winter months. When walking on an icy or snow-covered walkway take short steps and walk at a slower pace so you can react quickly to a change in traction.
Exposure to cold can cause injury and illness in workers removing snow. Cold exposure can cause frostbite and hypothermia. Shoveling snow can be a strenuous activity, particularly because cold weather can be taxing on the body. There is a potential for exhaustion, dehydration, back injuries, or heart attacks. During snow removal there are precautions workers can take to avoid injuries. The first is to avoid cold stress by taking frequent breaks in warm areas and staying hydrated. Workers should warm-up before snow removal, scoop small amounts of snow at a time and where possible, push the snow instead of lifting it. The use of proper lifting technique is necessary to avoid back and other injuries when shoveling snow: keep the back straight, lift with the legs and do not turn or twist the body.
It is important to make sure that powered equipment, such as snow blowers are properly grounded to protect workers from electric shocks or electrocutions. When performing maintenance or cleaning, make sure the equipment is properly guarded and is disconnected from power sources. First, turn the snow blower off and wait for all moving parts to stop, and then use a long stick to clear wet snow or debris from the machine. Never attempt to clear a jam by hand. Refuel a snow blower prior to starting the machine. Do not overload the snowblower. Always operate it at a modest speed.
In order to plan ahead it is important to think about what will be needed to safely remove snow from roofs or other elevated surfaces before snow starts to accumulate.
Questions to consider include:
- Can snow be removed without workers going onto the roof?
- Are there any hazards on the roof that might become hidden by the snow and need to be marked so that workers can see them (skylights, roof drains, vents, etc.)?
- How should the snow be removed, based on the building’s layout, to prevent unbalanced loading?
- What are the maximum load limits of the roof and how do they compare with the estimated total weight of snow, snow-removal equipment, and workers on the roof?
- What tools, equipment, protective devices, clothing and footwear will workers need?
- What type of fall protection will be used to protect workers on roofs and other elevated surfaces?
- What training will workers need to work safely?
- How will mechanized snow removal equipment be safely elevated to the roof?
- How will you protect people on the ground from snow and ice falling off the roof during removal operations?
Some tips for clearing snow from roofs and working at heights include evaluating snow removal tasks for hazards and planning how to do the work safely. Workers should be aware of the potential for unexpected hazards due to the weather conditions. For example, layers of ice can form as the environmental temperature drops, making surfaces even more slippery. A surface that is weighed down by snow may be at risk of collapsing. It must be inspected by a competent person to determine if it is structurally safe for workers to access it. Snow covered rooftops can hide hazards such as skylights that workers can fall through. Electrical hazards may also exist from overhead power lines or snow removal equipment.
Employers can protect workers from these hazardous work conditions by using snow removal methods that do not involve workers going on roofs, when and where possible. Employers should determine the right type of equipment (ladders, aerial lifts, etc.) and personal protective equipment (personal fall arrest systems, non-slip safety boots, etc.) for the job and ensure that workers are trained on how to properly use them.
Downed power lines pose significant risks for anyone working nearby. You must assume all power lines are energized and stay clear of any downed or damaged power lines. Establish a safe distance from power lines and report any incidents to the responsible authority. Only properly trained electrical utility workers can handle damaged power lines.
Repairing damaged power lines in severe winter weather conditions is especially hazardous. A major hazard is snow, because the moisture can reduce the insulation value of protective equipment and could cause electrocution. Other potential hazards include electrocution by contacting downed energized power lines or contacting objects in contact with downed energized power lines. Fires can also be caused by an energized line.
When working on downed or damaged power lines, electrical utility workers should use safe work practices, appropriate tools, and equipment including personal protective equipment. Extra caution should be exercised when working in adverse weather conditions.
Although employers cannot control roadway conditions, they can promote safe driving behavior by ensuring workers recognize the hazards of winter weather driving, are properly trained for driving in winter weather conditions, and are licensed for the vehicles they operate. Employers should set and enforce driver safety policies. Employers should also implement an effective maintenance program for all vehicles and mechanized equipment that workers are required to operate. Crashes can be avoided.
Employers should ensure properly trained workers regularly inspect the following vehicle systems to determine if they are working properly:
- Brakes: Brakes should provide even and balanced braking. Also check that brake fluid is at the proper level.
- Cooling System: Ensure a proper mixture of 50/50 antifreeze and water in the cooling system at the proper level.
- Electrical System: Check the ignition system and make sure that the battery is fully charged and that the connections are clean. Check that the alternator belt is in good condition with proper tension.
- Engine: Inspect all engine systems.
- Exhaust System: Check exhaust for leaks and that all clamps and hangers are snug.
- Tires: Check for proper tread depth and no signs of damage or uneven wear. Check for proper tire inflation.
- Oil: Check that oil is at proper level.
- Visibility Systems: Inspect all exterior lights, defrosters (windshield and rear window), and wipers. Install winter windshield wipers.
Especially during winter weather, work zones pose potential hazards. Workers being struck by vehicles lead to many work zone fatalities and injuries annually. Drivers may skid or lose control of their vehicles more easily when driving on snow and/or ice-covered roads. Therefore, it is vitally important to properly set up work zones with the traffic controls identified by signs, cones, barrels, and barriers, to protect workers. Workers exposed to vehicular traffic should always wear the appropriate high visibility vest, so that they can be visible to motorists.
Especially during heavy storms, the risk of being stranded is real. If you are stranded in a vehicle, stay in the vehicle. Call for emergency assistance if needed, response time may be slow in severe winter weather conditions. Notify your supervisor of your situation. Do not leave the vehicle to search for assistance unless help is visible within 100 yards. You may become disoriented and get lost in blowing and drifting snow. Display a trouble sign by hanging a brightly colored cloth on the vehicle’s radio antenna and raising the hood. Turn on the vehicle’s engine for about 10 minutes each hour and run the heat to keep warm. Also, turn on the vehicle’s dome light when the vehicle is running as an additional signal.
Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Do minor exercises to maintain good blood circulation in your body. Clap hands and move arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long. Stay awake, you will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems. Use blankets, newspapers, maps, and even the removable car mats for added insulation.
An emergency kit with the following items is recommended in vehicles:
- Cellphone or two-way radio
- Windshield ice scraper
- Snow brush
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Tow chain
- Traction aids (bag of sand or cat litter)
- Emergency flares
- Jumper cables
- Road maps
- Blankets, change of clothes
As winter weather makes its way across the country it is important to be prepared with a plan in place and employees properly trained to stay safe. At National Safety Compliance we offer many safety training options to help keep everyone safe.