Slips & Falls and Frozen Fingers: The Risks Workers Face in Winter
After a night of snow and freezing rain, the company parking lot becomes slick with ice. When an employee arrives at the office, they slip, spraining their ankle.
Later in the day, a maintenance worker is clearing the snow. They don’t have the proper gloves for the job and end up getting a mild case of frostbite.
Now you’ve got not just one but two workers’ compensation claims on your hand due to winter weather.
“We always have an uptick when it comes to the number of injuries,” Raul Chacon, director of loss control for EMPLOYERS, a small business workers’ compensation insurance firm.
Injuries from winter weather conditions, however, are not unavoidable. With the proper training, workers can learn to keep themselves safe as winter storm season sets in and weather conditions get colder.
Winter Weather Can Cause an Uptick in Injuries
Winter weather conditions like snow and ice come with both familiar and extreme injuries. Iced-over surfaces can cause employees to lose their balance, leading to an uptick in one of workers’ comp’s most common injury types: slips and falls.
“We have a lot of slips and falls that happen,” Chacon said. “And a slip and fall is just really what causes the injury, but it’s not necessarily the end result. So it could be that a slip and fall ends up being a strain, or it could actually end up fracturing their wrist.”
Ice isn’t always a visible danger either. Black ice can glaze over surfaces creating a slipping hazard that may go unnoticed by employees. Workers’ clothing choices — be they high heeled shoes or unhemmed pants — can increase the likelihood of slips and falls.
In addition to increasing the likelihood of common injuries, snow and ice bring dangerous, and even deadly, weather related injuries, including frostbite, falling from a roof while shoveling snow
and heart attacks related to overexertion.
More serious winter weather conditions tend to affect maintenance staff members who are responsible for clearing snow, Chacon said.
These tasks often are not part of their normal duties, so they may not have the right training or equipment, such as gloves, scarves and other warmer clothes for the job.
“A lot of times, companies tend to clear snow themselves,” Chacon said. “Sometimes when a person isn’t experienced in [clearing snow], it actually creates more problems. And those problems could actually convert into injuries and could be very costly.”
Those problems include issues like frostbite, which stem from employees not having the proper clothing, to overexertion, which can cause heart attacks.
Chacon said that many people forget that shoveling is a strenuous activity because they “used to do it when they were kids.” They don’t necessarily realize they may be engaging in a physical activity that doesn’t match their current physical fitness level. Other times, a lack of experience handling snow may cause employees to make dangerous decisions.
“In some cases, we’ve seen some really ridiculous things where they actually have somebody on the roof, just kind of using a broom, as an example, to remove that snow,” Chacon said. “We’ve seen some cases where people experienced heart attacks as a result of the exerted energy.”
He recommends companies leave snow clearing to the professionals in order to keep their in-house maintenance staff safe.
“Subcontract with a company that has someone who has the expertise, the equipment and knows how to do that to take care of it,” Chacon said.
“It may seem like that’s a little expensive, but when you really compare that to the potential of an injury being incurred by an employee — not only the injury itself, but all of the hidden costs that are associated with an injury — you’re better off subcontracting that out.”
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The best thing employers can do to decrease the chance of a winter weather-related workplace injury is to make a plan and provide safety training to their employees ahead of time.
“Don’t wait until the winter starts to start thinking about how you can make your workplace safer,” Chacon said.
“Make sure that an owner or manager makes that a priority. If a manager makes safety a priority, then employees will follow, because that’s who they’re following in terms of identifying what’s important in a company and what is not.”
Clear communication, a winter weather plan and targeted employee training sessions are all solutions Chacon believes can make an office space safer.
When the weather gets bad, it’s important to have an employee or manager who is assigned to monitor the conditions and communicate to the team if the office will be closed for the day.
Targeted employee training is also better than generic “don’t slip on the ice” advice, according to Chacon. He emphasized that managers should understand what tasks their team is expected to complete and create training programs designed to help them stay safe.
“If they understand the job task each person has, they can structure training to make sure it covers every person,” Chacon said.
Worker injuries aren’t the only risks companies face, however. As global climate change makes storms increasingly volatile, downed trees and power lines pose risks to employees, buildings and business continuity.
“As weather conditions increase, there’s a lot of, unfortunately, falling trees that are causing damages. So what happens when a tree falls over and I knocks over the power lines?” Chacon said.
He recommends managers and business owners conduct a ground walk of their business site to identify potential risks.
“These are things that are not necessarily anticipated, but if managers and supervisors go around, do a walk around the building and really look at what the potential for injuries in the workplace, they can kind of structure their training accordingly to not only alert employees, but also educate them on what to do if something does happen.”
When You Can’t Prevent a Winter Weather Injury
Even when employers take every precaution they can and spend time preparing their employees and offices for winter weather conditions, accidents will still occur.
When injuries happen, it’s important to remember that dangerous weather conditions can affect and employee’s ability to get the help they need.
Winter storms often increase the demand for emergency services because people are sometimes overconfident in their abilities to travel during blizzard conditions causing accidents to occur.
“The demand for emergency services increases significantly. Why? Because a lot of people think that it’s just snow, or it’s just heavy rain,” Chacon said.
Additionally, poor weather conditions can make it more difficult for ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency service providers to arrive on the scene of an accident. In these situations, first aid training can help employees take action while they wait for emergency services to arrive. &