7 Tips to Stay Safe at Work During a Winter Storm in New England

For most of us heavy snowfall means a snow day at work, but there are many others for whom snow means more work, not less. Fire, police, hospital workers, utility workers, plows and highway maintenance personnel, facilities staff to name a few, will all likely be hard at work while the snow falls fast and heavy. Without these folks we would be without emergency services during winter storms, and it would take much longer to dig out.  This could have catastrophic consequences, so we applaud all of those who must report to duty during a storm.

Job hazards are multiplied and magnified during winter storms. It is important to stay tuned to the latest information put forth by state emergency services (like MEMA, and RIEMA) so you can stay up to date on road conditions, special advisories, and state of emergency status. Stay abreast of weather conditions with weather advisory services like NOAA.gov and the National Weather service.

Extreme Cold Weather Safety- Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures can result in health problems as serious as trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia. Dress in many loose fitting layers: tightly woven outer layer to break the wind and be water repellant (nylon or Gore-Tex), middle layer of wool or synthetic fabric to absorb sweat and provide insulation, inner layer of natural fiber to allow ventilation. Keep your head covered; you lose up to 55% of your body heat through your head. Wear warm, waterproof shoes with non-skid tread (or ice cleats). Shield your work area from drafty or windy conditions. Provide a heated shelter for employees to get temporary relief from the cold. Use thermal insulating material equipment handles. Schedule work whenever possible during the warmest part of the day, allow employees to set their own pace and take extra work breaks in a warm dry place as needed. Ensure that you remain hydrated, drink lots of clear liquids and warm, sweet beverages. Establish a buddy system for working outdoors. Be aware of the symptoms of cold stress.
Road Safety- Never use your cell phone or mobile device while driving, but it is particularly hazardous in stormy weather. Make sure you use your seat belt. Allow more time to get to your destination, and reduce your speed significantly. Be aware that it will take more time to stop on a slick road, and leave more room to do so. Inspect your vehicle before getting on the road, paying special attention to safety devices (seatbelts, signal lights, airbags, etc.), tires, brakes, windshield wipers. Make sure your fluids are all topped off, especially anti-freeze, and windshield wiper fluid. Check road conditions before you head out, and make sure you know where you are going.
Walking and Working Surfaces- Slippery conditions increase significantly during winter weather, whether you are inside or out.  Keeping walking and working surfaces clean and dry will take much more attention and effort.  In addition to OSHA’s general regulations for walking-working surfaces, here are some things you should be aware of during a winter storm. Clear outdoor walkways from snow and use de-icer frequently. Make sure you are wearing appropriate footwear with good non-skid tread. Provide clear signage for slippery floors, keep floors dry and clean as possible, keep floors clear of all tripping hazards, make sure toeboards and railings are visible and kept clear of snow. Never work on scaffolds during storms, high winds, ice or snow.
Carbon monoxide- Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas.  Large amounts of carbon monoxide can kill you in minutes.  Generators are a big concern for carbon monoxide poisoning during storms, as is exhaust systems becoming clogged with snow. The more carbon monoxide there is, the less oxygen there is for you to breathe.  The incomplete burning of any material containing carbon, such as wood, coal, gasoline, oil, propane, or natural gas produces carbon monoxide.  The most common source of exposure is the internal combustion engine.

Any one or more of the following symptoms can signal carbon monoxide exposure: headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, tightness across the chest or flushed face.  To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning: install an effective ventilation system, make sure all exhaust systems are kept clear of snow and debris , maintain equipment in good working order, consider using battery-powered machines instead of internal combustion engines,  install carbon monoxide monitors where carbon monoxide is generated or used. 

Inform workers to:

Report any condition which carbon monoxide may form or accumulate.
If you get sick, report it immediately.
If an employee is exposed to carbon monoxide, direct them to a fresh air area and contact physician. 
Remember physical activity increases the body’s need for oxygen, thus increasing the danger of poisoning.

Strain injuries- Anyone who has shoveled a driveway knows the danger of strain injuries. The combination of freezing temperatures, slippery surfaces, and heavy snow is a perfect formula for a strain injury. Make sure that you are lifting only what you can manage, know your limit! Use mechanical assistance when the load is too heavy to move manually. Keep your arms close to your body so you do not strain your back, and bend your knees. When turning do not turn at your waist, and try to throw snow as close as possible.

Frostbite, Trench Foot & Hypothermia- Most cold related injuries are a result of exposure to humidity, high wind, wet condition, and inadequate clothing.  When cold exposure lasts for more than an hour, cooling of your skin and reduces blood flow to your hands, leads to bloated sensation of touch, pain and loss of dexterity and agility.

Employees should be aware of the harmful effects of cold weather, which include trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia. 

Trench Foot – Is caused by long, continuous exposure to a wet, cold environment.    

Symptoms – Tingling or itching sensation, burning pain and swelling.  Blisters can form in extreme cases.

Treatment – Move individual to a warm, dry area.  Where the affected tissue can be treated, carefully wash and dry, re-warm and slightly elevate.  Seek medical attention. 

Frostbite – Occurs when the skin tissue actually freezes causing ice crystals to form between cells and draw water from there.  Typically occurs at temperature below 30° F.            

Symptoms – Uncomfortable sensations or coldness, tingling, stinging or aching feeling, followed by numbness.  Ears, fingers, toes, cheeks, and nose are primarily affected.  Frostbite appears white and is cold to the touch.

Treatment – Seek medical assistance immediately.  Frostbitten parts should be covered with dry cloth bandages.  DO NOT massage frostbitten tissue because this may cause greater injury.

Hypothermia – Describes the condition of dramatically lowered body temperature that can result from overexposure to cold. 

Symptoms – The first symptom is shivering, and mild confusion.  As body temperature falls, the victim is in a state of dazed consciousness, blurred speech and irrational behavior.  The most severe state results in slowing of the heart rate, blood flow, and breathing. 

Treatment – Seek medical assistance immediately.  Conserve the victims remaining body heat and provide additional heat sources.  Remove all wet clothing; add layers of dry clothing, blankets, etc.  External warming techniques may be applied (body to body contact, chemical heat packs, insulated hot water bottles).  Avoid giving beverages containing alcohol or caffeine.

Emergency kit- At your worksite or in your car you should have an emergency kit that includes:

Non-perishable food items, including plenty of water, dried fruit, nuts, canned food, crackers, granola bars
Flashlight or lantern with extra batteries
First aid kit
Radio (battery powered, or hand crank)
Extra batteries
Road flares
Warm blanket
Kitty litter (for the car, to aid traction)
2-week supply of prescription medication/ supplies
Battery powered cell phone charger
Manual can opener
Plastic sheeting or tarp