Slips, trips and falls are the second leading cause of death in the workplace and account for more than 1 million hospital visits in the United States each year. During the winter months, hazardous weather conditions greatly increase the risk for such incidents. In fact, some experts estimate that nearly 80 percent of all slips, trips and falls can be attributed to the presence of snow and ice on stairs, walkways, loading docks, parking lots, sidewalks and other walking surfaces.
A number of measures can be taken to help prevent or reduce the occurrence of winter-weather-related slips, trips and falls. The first is preparation. It is imperative to have a plan in place for combatting winter weather conditions. This may include ensuring snow removal and plowing contract agreements and coverage are arranged ahead of the first snowfall.
Additionally, winter supplies—such as snow blowers, shovels, ice melt, rock salt and sand—should be purchased and ready to use long before the winter months arrive. It is also important to have a disaster supply kit ready and on hand in case of an emergency. On its website, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has an extensive checklist of items that should be included (www.ready.gov/build-a-kit).
Taking a proactive approach and staying ahead of the weather is another crucial element to mitigating winter hazards. Ice-melting materials should be placed at all doorways, parking lots/garages, stairs, walkways and loading docks. These areas should be kept free from snow as well. The surfaces should be frequently monitored for black ice and refreezing, and they should be de-iced.
Floor mats and area rugs can be placed at exterior doorways to prevent slips on uncarpeted surfaces. Buckets and mops should be nearby to clean up water from melting snow and ice. “Wet Floor” signs, warning of slippery surfaces, also should be displayed.
Cleaning gutters can help prevent unwanted accumulation of ice. Snow and ice can build up quickly in gutters, especially when they are clogged with leaves and other debris. When thawing begins, refreezing can create significant problems and dangerous, icy conditions.
Not only are there slip, trip and fall hazards created by winter weather on walking surfaces, but hazards also exist in and on work vehicles. For example, truck beds and access steps require extra caution because these areas are not usually treated for ice. It is important to look before exiting vehicles and be wary of icy driveways. Carrying extra grit and ice-melting materials for use at job sites also is a good idea.
Like winter hazards on vehicles, there will probably be additional risks on customer job sites. Some of those not already addressed include snow-covered waterways and holes and the presence of deep snow, challenging mobility.
The use of proper footwear can make moving around on ice and in snow a much safer and easier task. Work boots with good rubber sole treads are extremely helpful, as are rubber slip-on overshoes with good treads that fit over everyday footwear to improve traction.
When choosing proper footwear, it is imperative to factor in the slip-resistance of the shoe or boot, the tread design, hardness of the sole, and the shape of the sole and heel. Since there is no specific recommended tread pattern for slip-resistant footwear, you should consult with the manufacturer to determine what the correct shoe or boot is for each specific work environment.
Footwear with a thermoplastic rubber sole is often ideal for working in cold weather. You may consider purchasing ice cleats that attach to your footwear. They can provide additional traction in extremely slippery conditions.
When walking on snowy, wet, icy or slippery surfaces, be aware of hazards. Although it may seem like common sense, pay attention, move slowly, take one step at a time and watch where you are going when navigating these surfaces. If you are climbing snow-covered stairs, check to ensure that they are safe and free from buried debris and clutter that can cause you to slip, trip or fall.
Additional winter weather hazards include reduced visibility from precipitation, road debris/salt and reduced daylight hours. Reduced visibility is often linked to the occurrence of slips, trips and falls. The use of additional lighting can help mitigate these risks.
No matter what, employers and workers alike are required to deal with whatever weather conditions are thrown at them. However, the use of some simple, common-sense precautions and preventative measures can drastically reduce the potential for slips, trips and falls.
For more information about OSHA’s walking working surfaces requirements and/or dealing with winter weather hazards, visit www.osha.gov.