Workplace Safety Blog Post

OSHA Update: Winter Storms

Winter storms continue in much of the U.S.

Americans across much of the U.S. are wondering when, if ever, temperatures will return back to the norm. The polar vortex that seems to be paralyzing just about everywhere east of the Mississippi, has caused havoc and chaos among many who are simply not prepared for this type of weather. Winter storms come and go, but few have the impact of the recent wave of storms. In light of this, OSHA has released a Winter Storms Kit that is designed to help employers and employees educate, prepare, and avoid hazards when a winter storm occurs.

winter stormsWhat is a polar vortex?

A polar vortex is a persistent, circulation of powerful, upper-level winds that surround the southern and northern poles in a counterclockwise direction. The strong winds keep the extreme low temperatures locked in their specific regions. Occasionally, the vortex becomes distorted and pushes it’s way into regions that don’t normally experience the extreme temperatures it produces — like we are now.

A glitch in the vortex?

The distortion begins when the upper-level winds that power the polar vortex, start to vary in intensity. As those winds decrease in force, the vortex becomes distorted, allowing a jet stream of extremely cold, Arctic air to make its way into unfamiliar regions. This is known as the Arctic Oscillation.

OSHA’s winter storms page

OSHA’s top priority, as always, is to assure the safety and health of America’s workers in anyway they can. Recognizing the serious threat that winter storms have on the American workforce, OSHA has updated their website to include additional information on how to prepare for winter storms and avoid hazards when one happens.

Did you know? According to the National Weather Service, about 70 percent of injuries during winter storms result from vehicle accidents, and about 25 percent of injuries result from being caught out in the storm.

Part of the informational package is a preparedness section that strongly advises individuals to monitor the weather sources in their area to be informed when winter storms are on their way. To help one better understand their weather report, OSHA  has also included information on the types of winter storm watches and warnings. They are as follows:

  • Winter storm watch- Be alert, a storm is likely.
  • Winter weather advisory- Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous, especially to motorists.
  • Frost/freeze warning- Take action, the storm is in or entering the area.
  • Blizzard warning- Snow and strong winds combined will produce blinding snow, near zero visibility, deep drifts, and life-threatening wind chill — seek refuge immediately.
  • Wind chill- Wind chill is an estimation of how cold it feels outside when the effects of temperature and wind speed are combined.

For those that don’t know, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has multiple outlets to stay up on winter storms, including NOAA Weather Radio, which is a network of radios stations that relay information from the nearest National Weather Service office. You can also access weather information from the NOAAWatch website.

Train your workers

Often times, the biggest risk during a winter storm, is not knowing what to do and when to do it. OSHA strongly urges employers to provide some form of training for their employees to be better suited to elements of winter. Each organization may have it’s own risks and hazards they need to provide additional training for during the winter months, but at the least, OSHA recommends the following training:

Cold Stress:

  • How to recognize the symptoms of cold stress, prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses
  • The importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms
  • First aid and how to call for additional medical assistance in an emergency
  • How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions

Other winter weather related hazards that workers may be exposed to, for example, slippery roads  and surfaces, windy conditions, and downed power lines.

  • How to recognize these hazards.
  • How workers will be protected: engineering controls, safe work practices and proper selection of equipment, including personal protective equipment.

What is cold stress?

Depending on where you live, cold stress and its aftermath can vary. If you live in a region where extremely cold temperatures are rare, just getting close to freezing temperatures could trigger the effects of cold stress. High winds can also impact the effects of cold stress because they cause heat to the leave the body more quickly. You can also have heat loss from wetness, dampness, and body sweat. These factors, among others that drive down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature are what cause cold stress to occur. Once the body is unable to warm itself, major cold-related illnesses and injuries are possible, along with permanent tissue damage, even death in some cases. Examples of cold stress include: trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.

Protect your workers from the elements

Training is only part of the solution. Employers need to also protect their employees from the elements winter storms can produce. This can be done by adding radiant heaters to warm workplaces where no additional heating is available, like an outdoor workstation. For high winds, employers should shield workers from the wind to reduce the wind chill and any possible threat the winds possess. Also, any ice present in the parking lot or entryways to the facility should be treated with the proper solution to avoid slip and fall accidents.

Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.

Additional Resources