What Precautions Can Employers Take To Handle the Hazards of Winter?

Winter is here, and it brings a myriad of health and work safety hazards with it. Along with the most obvious effects of cold stress and illness which can be reduced through proper cold weather apparel, there are additional hazards in vehicle operation, managing work zone traffic, working at heights, the potential for slip and fall incidents, working with or near downed or damaged power lines, and clearing downed trees and other obstructions. Employers must ensure that their workers are protected regardless of what Mother Nature decides to throw at them, and this means taking additional precautions and preparations to account for the possibility of severe winter weather.

What precautions should employers take to reduce the hazards of vehicle operation during the winter?

While you can't control the weather, you can promote safe driving behavior among your workers, and ensure that they are cognizant of the hazards of driving in winter weather conditions and that their vehicles are properly inspected and maintained to help prevent crashes and mechanical failures that can be dangerous to operators and occupants. In addition, areas where workers must work near traffic require additional caution during winter weather, as drivers may skid or lose control of their vehicles more easily and may have lowered visibility or other impairments. Work zones must be properly identified and marked off for safety, and all workers must wear appropriate high visibility apparel to ensure that they are visible to motorists.

What additional precautions are needed when clearing roofs of snow and other difficulties?

Clearing snow from roofs is a common hazardous task required as part of the winter season, and employers must evaluate and plan how to do the work safely. This includes being mindful of the potential for unexpected hazards due to the winter conditions such as layers of ice, surfaces weighed down by snow that may have the potential for collapse, concealed hazards that workers might fall through, electrical hazards from snow removal equipment or overhead power lines, and other unforeseen problems. Employers should determine the right equipment and personal protective equipment, including braced ladders, personal fall arrest systems, non-slip safety boots, etc, for any tasks required, and ensure that workers are trained on how to properly use them, and should use methods that do not require workers to put themselves at risk where possible.

What can employers do to reduce slip hazards caused by winter weather on the job site?

Slips, trips, and falls are a common winter hazard regardless of the work environment. Employers can reduce these risks at their work sites by ensuring that walking surfaces are cleared of snow and ice, and that deicer is spread as quickly as possible after winter storms. They can also ensure that workers have appropriate footwear to reduce the risk of injury - insulated, water-resistant boots or over-shoes with good rubber treads are recommended for walking during or after a winter storm when slip hazards are at their worst. Workers are also advised to take shorter steps and walk at a slower pace so that they can respond appropriately to changes in traction when walking on icy, snowy, or otherwise hazardous walkways is unavoidable.

What precautions are required to mitigate the added risk of working on or near power lines during winter weather?

Utility workers who must repair or replace damaged power lines in severe winter weather conditions are at particular risk, as wetness and snow can reduce the insulation value of protective equipment, resulting in increased electrocution hazards, in addition to the additional risks posed when working at heights on potentially slippery equipment. If possible, electrical equipment should be de-energized before work is performed, and a full hazard analysis must be performed to identify the safest way to perform necessary work before proceeding. Additional personal protective equipment may be required due to the increased risk of electrocution or to address other hazards created by harsh weather, and additional caution should be exercised when working in adverse weather conditions. Other workers who must work near damaged or downed power lines should assume that they are energized at all times, and should establish a safe perimeter from them and report them to the responsible authority. Only properly-trained electrical utility workers should handle damaged power lines.

What can employers do to reduce hazards while dealing with obstructions caused by winter weather such as downed trees?

Clearing downed trees and other collapsed obstructions may be necessary during severe winter weather conditions, particularly when they block public roads and damage power lines. Employers are responsible for ensuring that workers who must work at clearing trees under these conditions are provided with proper personal protective equipment, including electrical PPE for trees in contact with energized power lines, fall protection equipment if working from heights, and protective equipment to reduce the risk of injury from any powered equipment being used as part of the tree-clearing task such as chainsaws or wood chippers. 

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