The hazards of winter weather are upon us.  As first responders, the public works community will confront those hazards head-on and it is essential that we take a few minutes out and remind crews of best practices to avoid occupational injuries associated with conditions we have not seen for the last eight or nine months…or even longer.

Now, at the mention of “winter weather,” it is natural to think of snow.  Light, fluffy snow.  Dream on.  More likely for us in Delaware, it’s heavy, slushy snow or worse yet, sleet and freezing rain followed by heavy, slushy snow.

Quite understandably, the public views roadway ice and snow removal from a perspective of convenience.  We simply have to get to work; we are very important after all.  We have to get the kids to their Taekwondo practice.  We can’t miss that holiday party.  We have to get to that swimwear sale at the mall (that’s a real story).  In reality…no we don’t…we really do not.  But we sure do want to and it would be awfully convenient if we could.  So, we would really like the roads to be clear and dry at all times, if that’s not too much trouble.

Snow and ice fighters correctly understand that during the storm and the hours that follow, winter maintenance is about public safety.  By strategically focusing on our primary routes and streets leading to essential facilities (hospitals, fire stations, assisted living centers, seats of government, etc.) we can better assure that if there is a fire, heart attack, traumatic injury, or domestic dispute at the end of a cul-de-sac street, we can scramble equipment to clear that last half mile or so before fire trucks, ambulances, or law enforcement get there, and no time will be lost at a time when time is at a premium.

The result is that snow and ice fighters are a serious bunch, dedicated to the best road conditions they can give us at any time during the snow.  Not for our convenience, but for our safety.  And in the process, these dedicated folks can neglect their own personal safety.  Let us examine some of the hazards and steps that can be taken to minimize risk.

One of the first hazards to think about is the maintenance yard itself.  Most yards are tighter than we would like them to be and in any event, lend themselves to natural pathways of travel for the majority of the year and routine operations.  During a winter storm and the hours that lead up to it, trucks, loaders, and other equipment can be present or active in larger numbers than usual and heading for parts of the yard that are seldomly used to connect with plows and spreaders or load up with salt.  Further, such operations are likely to occur at night or in other low visibility conditions.  Operators of equipment and especially those on foot must turn off their autopilot feature, slow down a bit, and keep an eye out for each other, because the seemingly chaotic use of the yard can make for unexpected collisions.

A related hazard before you even get out of the yard is your own dedication to the fight.  Contrary to popular belief (“what’s big and orange and sleeps six – a public works truck”…chuckle, chuckle), snow and ice fighters are serious professionals and once the adrenaline gets pumping, there is a tendency to move fast to stay ahead of the storm.  That is admirable (and it is a shame the public doesn’t get a chance to see it in action), but some balance is in order.  Crew leaders and supervisors should caution the whole team during the pre-storm tailgate safety meeting to be mindful of slippery conditions under foot.

Proper footwear is a must and well-insulated, supportive boots with an aggressive sole can help a lot –waxed leather loafers should be reserved for the spring.  Next, while we are not encouraging lollygagging, tearing off across the maintenance yard on foot or leaping on or off equipment raises the risk of slips, trips, and falls, so go a little slower and a little more deliberate.  When mounting and dismounting equipment, remember that you have two hands and two feet, and three of those four should be in contact with the steps and handholds at any time to best ensure your safety.

Finally, straight out of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks is the Penguin Walk.  There is some debate on the nuances of this, but the consensus seems to be that keeping our mass centered over our front leg and hip and taking shorter steps reduces the likelihood of what is hopefully just an embarrassing butt-plant on the ice.  The reality is that such a fall can do real damage and anytime we lose control of our balance, it is hard to say what we are going to hit on the way down.  Even a minor slip or fall can cause an injury that takes you out of the fight for the duration of the storm and a worse one can cause effects you struggle with for years, so ease off the gas just a bit and be mindful of where you are headed.

Being run over and falling down are not the only ways injuries can find you.  Connecting, disconnecting, and troubleshooting trucks, loaders, plows, and other equipment provides lots of opportunity for pinches and much worse.  Hydraulic lines can fail, spraying hot fluid everywhere, which can get in the eyes, the mouth, or the nose…or just plain burn you.  Combining these activities with the rushing around mentioned earlier can increase the likelihood of a mistake, so slow it down a bit, use safety interlocks to support raised beds, and work with buddies that feel comfortable stopping you to ask, “are you sure that’s the way you want to do that?”

Once you are loaded up and on the road, the comparative safety of the truck cab means your risk of injury is much lower, as long as you remain alert and practice good driving skills.  And as long as no one pulls out in front of you or cuts you off.  And as long as deer and dogs do not run out in the road.  And as long as you are a little lucky.  So another topic for the tailgate safety meeting is hyper-vigilance and constant situational awareness.  Yes, any experienced snow or ice fighter already knows this, but a pre-storm reminder cannot hurt.  That way, when the sled operator overshoots the end of the hill and ends up in the middle of the road, there’s a greater likelihood the snowplow operator sees him or her in time and all is well.

But you cannot always remain in the cab of the truck.  Maybe the windshield wipers have iced up or the salt spinner is acting funny or the safety strobes don’t look right and should be checked.  Out you go, and once again, you are exposed.  Except now, you are not in the relative safety of your maintenance yard.  Instead, you are out where passing vehicles may not expect you to be out of the truck.  Retroreflective outer apparel is a must whenever you are outside the truck and a heightened awareness of your surroundings can be the difference in your safety.

Returning to the yard, remember that inside the buildings may not be ice, but all those tiled and epoxied floors turn treacherous as the snow and ice fall off of us and melt.  Good housekeeping is an important element of winter maintenance to minimize the potential for slips and falls inside your operations buildings.  Keeping at least one hand free is also a good practice, so if you need to carry things in and out, make multiple trips if you need to.

Snow and Ice fighters can be their own worst enemy during a winter storm, simply as a reflection of how seriously they take their responsibility.  However, crew leaders and supervisors should remind the crew before every storm that prudence dictates slowing down a bit and being constantly aware of their surroundings.  A well-intended crewmember that ends up injured does no one any good for the remainder of the storm.  And it bears reminding that some injuries can be much more serious – nothing in a winter storm is worth a team member sustaining long term injury, so talk safety up prior to each storm.  Our tailgate safety talk on the topic can make quick work of the reminders and posting the attachments in the break room can be a continuing reminder.

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