In many parts of the United States, the onset of winter weather means an increase in workers' compensation claims. Blizzards, winter storms, snow, sleet, ice and freezing temperatures can lead to various occupational and workplace injuries and illnesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 20,460 occupational injuries related to snow, ice, sleet and snow in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
While any worker can be affected by winter weather risks and hazards, outdoor-based employees such as construction workers, first responders, recreation workers and utility workers are generally more at risk from winter weather hazards, risks and environmental conditions due to the nature of their work.
Most common winter workers' comp claims
Many of the common winter workers' compensation claims fall into one of the categories described below:
- Slips, trips, and falls: These incidents account for about 25% of total workplace injuries, according to the National Safety Council. The likelihood of these injuries increases when there is ice and snow on the ground. Some common hazards associated with workplace slips and falls include snow and ice on parking lots, stairs, walkways, floors, roadways and sidewalks.
- Cold-stress injuries: According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, cold stress occurs when skin temperature is driven down and eventually the internal body temperature drops too low. Serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur when the body is unable to warm itself, and some can be permanent or fatal. Cold temperatures, high winds, dampness, and cold water all contribute to cold stress. Common cold-stress illnesses or injuries are trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia.
- Winter driving hazards: Winter weather can cause hazardous driving conditions, resulting in an increase in auto and vehicle accident workers' comp claims.
- Snow shoveling and snow removal hazards: Injuries and illnesses can include strains and sprains, harm from using equipment, dehydration and even heart attacks, according to OSHA.
Along with the detrimental effects on the health and safety of employees and an increase in workers' comp claims and costs, winter workplace injuries can lead to higher general liability insurance costs, higher costs from employee absences due to work injury and lost productivity.
Prevention strategies are key
Fortunately, employers can implement a number of wide-ranging risk management and safety strategies to minimize risk and prevent injuries from snow, ice, storms and other winter weather hazards. These solutions and prevention tools include employee communication and education, safety campaigns and plans and procedures to be followed during cold weather, snow or storms.
Here are some plans and techniques that can be used to develop a complete winter workplace safety strategy:
Communication and Education
- Implement a winter weather communications strategy to advise employees of potentially hazardous weather events.
- Create a winter weather safety manual and distribute it to all workers.
- Educate employees on the risks of slips and falls during winter.
- Consider creating winter storm contingency plans, such as remote working, to minimize travel during hazardous conditions.
- Make sure outdoor workers know how to recognize the signs of cold stress.
Safe Snow and Ice Removal
- Hire a snow removal company to clear parking lots, sidewalks, stairs and walkways.
- Use safe ice and snow melting techniques.
- Be aware of the hazards of shoveling snow.
- Develop a winter safety awareness campaign to communicate procedures and plans.
- Use highly visible signage such as caution and warning signs in hazardous areas, both indoor and outdoor.
- Promote safe operations of all winter equipment, including plows and snowblowers.
Winter Weather Safety Gear and Clothing
- Make sure outdoor employees wear appropriate clothing and other protective equipment during cold weather.
- Be aware of OSHA requirements for providing personal protective equipment for workers; protective winter gear may fall into this category.
Equipment and Vehicles
- Ensure that workplace vehicles and heavy equipment are inspected and properly working for winter weather conditions.
- Equip vehicles with emergency safety and weather kits.
- Make sure drivers are properly trained to operate vehicles in winter weather conditions.
Remember that communicable illnesses associated with the winter season, such as flu and colds, are not covered under workers' comp. It behooves your company and your employees to practice excellent hygiene during winter months to avoid lost work time due to preventable communicable disease. Vaccinations are also important. You may wish to provide flu shots onsite.
Your human resources department or safety manager can consult with a variety of resources in order to create and implement winter safety plans and programs, including the National Safety Council, OSHA or your insurance provider. By taking a proactive approach to winter safety and risk management, you can protect your workers and create a safe work environment regardless of the weather.