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The frigid cold blast affecting the Midwest and the snow projected for the South can increase safety hazards and result in an uptick in workplace injuries, experts say.
In 2014, more than 42,480 workers suffered injuries requiring at least one day away from work due to ice, sleet or snow, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data involving winter weather. Among those reported injuries, 82% were due to falls on the same level.
Slips, trips and falls increase in the winter because of the changing precipitation from rain to ice to snow and back, and the effects these weather hazards have on walking surfaces, said Peter Koch, a safety management specialist for Portland, Maine-based The MEMIC Group, a workers compensation insurer.
“Really, luck determines how a person falls,” said Mr. Koch. “You can have someone walking in the most dangerous conditions and might end up landing softly. Of you could have somebody in a less hazardous situation fall backwards and land on the back of their head, which could be life changing or life ending.”
MEMIC has seen a significant increase in slip and fall injuries during the first week of January in years that have experienced icy, snow-covered conditions.
The cost of injuries from these falls can be significant, Mr. Koch said. MEMIC reported that a parking lot fall resulted in medical and wage replacement costs of nearly $1.5 million when an employee suffered a spinal cord injury and was rendered a paraplegic, and a truck driver’s comp costs totaled more than $125,000 last year when he fell on ice and fractured his hip.
In a 2017 study conducted by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in Pennsylvania and published by the National Institutes of Health, emergency rooms in the city experienced a surge of fall-related visits during the winter months — particularly in the morning following a snowfall — over a five-year period, leading the health department to conclude that “promoting work closures or delaying openings after severe winter weather would allow time for better snow or ice removal,” thereby reducing “weather-related fall injuries.”
One of the best solutions, Mr. Koch said, is simply making employees are prepared and aware of the hazard and taking away the distractions. Employers may take all the precautions necessary to clear and salt parking lots and walkways and maintain indoor surfaces, but injuries may still occur if employees aren’t aware of the potential for slippery conditions, are wearing improper shoes or are failing to pay attention to their environment, he said.
“You have to explain to employees that you don’t want them to hurry or carry large objects when the weather is not good,” said Cindy Roth, CEO of Ergonomics Technologies Corp., a safety consulting company in Massapequa, New York. “Footwear also has to be suitable for the environment with adequate nonslip soles and appropriate tread patterns.”
Companies may want to consider relaxing dress codes during challenging conditions or encouraging employees to wear boots into the office and change their shoes when they get to the office, Mr. Koch said. Just ensure that those boots don’t encroach on walkways and create another hazard, he said.
Employers should also consider adding “eye-catching and non-static signage — something people recognize as providing some important information” as they approach the workplace during inclement weather conditions. For businesses in more temperate states, signs are commercially available that turn color when the temperature drops toward freezing to notify employees of the potential risk of ice, he said.
Improper housekeeping is another common problem during winter months, said Ms. Roth.
“People leave shovels, and bags of ice melt outside,” she said. Companies may fail to take care to ensure uneven surfaces are identified and corrected, and that older winter mats are replaced when they begin to curl.
“Facilities departments don’t change [the mats] out fast enough because of the expense, but if you’ve got a workers comp claim on a slip, trip or fall, you’ve spent that money times 10,” Ms. Roth said.
While mitigating the effect of winter weather to prevent comp claims is important, failing to maintain a safe workplace could also potentially lead to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations, said Joshua Henderson, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP based in San Francisco.
Mr. Henderson said it’s not a stretch for employers who have workers outside performing tasks in bitter cold conditions to consider the clothing required to protect them as they would any other personal protective equipment.
Construction and utility, postal carriers, delivery personnel and employees in other similar positions may be negatively affected by improper protective clothing and training in the bitter cold, which could lead to hypothermia and/or frostbite, noted Ms. Roth.
If OSHA determines that an employer failed to provide proper personal protective equipment for conducting outdoor work and deemed it a violation of the general duty clause to provide a safe and healthy work environment, a company could face up to a $13,260 fine for each violation, said Mr. Henderson. Violations deemed repeat or willful could result in penalties as high as $132,598, according to OSHA.
Companies can minimize their risks of comp claims and OSHA fines by maintaining a robust safety plan that includes educating supervisors and employees about ways to be safe at work, including reminders on proper safety equipment in various weather conditions, and procedures to report unsafe work conditions “no matter how minor they may seem” can also minimize risk, Mr. Henderson said.
Implementing a “see something, say something” policy is another good preventive measure, said Ms. Roth. “It’s everybody’s responsibility. If an employer is looking to save money, communication is a heck of a lot cheaper than a workers comp claim.”
Wearable devices can provide construction employers with a ton of valuable information about safety and health risks that their employees are contending with in the workplace, including whether an employee is overheating, slowing down or tired, present in a dangerous location or engaging in risky behavior such as sliding down a banister.