Slips and falls, as well as illnesses and injuries caused by cold stress, pose considerable risk to employee health. Here we share tips to help keep your operations running smoothly – and safely – all winter long.
Depending on your business location, winter can bring serious threats to the health and safety of your workforce. In the frosty Midwest, for instance, slips and falls represent one-third of all workers’ compensation claims during winter months. Not only this, but simply working outside during colder temperatures has been shown to increase the prevalence of low back and neck pain.
It is the responsibility of employers to provide a safe working environment for all employees, free of known hazards that are likely to cause serious physical harm. Here are some tips for carrying out this responsibility and supporting your employees’ well-being this winter.
Shield workers from the cold.
Many businesses have mission-critical tasks that require workers to be outside during the winter months; however, there are ways to help mitigate the effects of cold-weather conditions.
Thinking big picture, determine which routine outdoor tasks, like repair or maintenance jobs, can be handled in spring or summer. When drawing up daily schedules, try to limit the amount of time spent outdoors and plan work for the warmest part of the day. If outdoor work is unavoidable on an extremely cold day, think about whether shorter shifts can be accommodated by adding extra workers to the rotation. Give your workers some reprieve by offering sheltered areas to reduce wind chill and supply blast heaters where needed. Employees can also beat the chill by taking breaks indoors and consuming warm beverages throughout the day.
Have a snow maintenance plan.
If not tended to properly, ice and snow can increase the risk of slips and falls for outdoor workers. Before each winter, review and confirm your maintenance plan to apply ice melt or salt to your parking lots, walkways, loading/shipping docks and steps. Lay down mats near entrances to prevent tracked ice, snow and mud and slippery conditions, and if appropriate, consider adding a mudroom or entry room for workers to remove and store boots and outerwear.
Depending on your business’s buildings, rooftop snow removal may also be needed, as overloaded structures can lead to potential collapse. Bear in mind that rooftop snow removal can lead to serious injury in and of itself if not executed safely. Read OSHA’s Snow Removal: Know the Hazards pamphlet for more information.
Keep communications channels open.
Although it’s important to factor forecasts into your operations, there will always be occasions when winter conditions come on suddenly. In these instances, employee communications can be critical, even lifesaving. Have a system in place for monitoring weather conditions and remaining attuned to public announcements related to severe weather (e.g., sirens, radio and television). Likewise, give your employees a phone number to call should they notice sudden winter conditions, become stranded in a company vehicle, or see a hazard such as a downed tree or power line that must be mitigated. And if operations must be suspended or an area is to be evacuated, be sure your communication methods allow you to reach all workers, including those in remote areas.
Empower your employees.
Environmental cold can affect exposed workers and put them at risk of cold stress, which occurs when the body can no longer maintain a normal temperature. And cold stress can lead to cold-related illness or injury, permanent tissue damage, or death. As you train employees in ways to prevent these winter weather ailments, consider the following:
- Workers with hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes are particularly vulnerable, and employees who have been away from work or are new to working in cold temperatures may require more frequent breaks and time to build up a tolerance to colder temperatures.
- While employees are wise to layer loose-fitting clothing during the winter months, wearing bulkier clothing may restrict their movement. Identify potential hazards so you can train your staff on appropriate safety measures. Have safeguards in place on machinery in cases of clothing catching on handles, switches or levers. Train your workers to recognize the signs of cold stress and how to help those who are affected.
- Remind workers of the importance of stretching and physical activity in cold temperatures, which can prevent muscle tension and mitigate the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Whether your organization’s primary work environment is indoors or outdoors, winter requires planning and vigilance. By taking precautions to minimize illness and injury, you can safeguard the well-being of your workers and maximize operability this winter.