Falls are the leading cause of construction deaths, and winter is no time to slip up when it comes to prevention.
Performing outside work in winter is challenging not just because of the threat of cold stress but because snowy and icy surfaces make slips and trips as well as falls from roofs and other heights more likely. Preventing them is largely a matter of smart preventive measures and plenty of timely reminders during toolbox talks.
Boot up and suit up. Employees should be wearing water-resistant boots with good non-slip tread. Ensure that fall protection equipment fits properly when worn with winter clothing.
Slow it down. Give workers extra time to observe and evaluate the work site and to move slowly and cautiously, advised Carl Heinlein, a senior safety consultant at American Contractors Insurance Group and a director at American Society of Safety Engineers.
Temperatures flipping above and below freezing throughout a work day, shorter days with less light and more shadows, and reduced feeling in the hands caused by thicker gloves all require more planning and more time to work safely, Heinlein said.
Review manufacturers’ guidelines. “Ice is a bad word,” Heinlein said. “It’s worth it to spend a great deal of time preparing to make equipment safe to work on and to work from.” Reacquaint yourself with the manufacturer’s guidelines on your equipment to plan for the effect of changing temperatures, wind, weight (from snow and ice) and other factors on your gear and workers, he advised.
Keep workers off the roof. If snow must be removed from a roof, OSHA recommends using, whenever possible, snow removal methods that do not involve workers going on the roof. Employers should determine the right type of equipment (whether it’s a ladder, aerial lift, or something else) and PPE to use and make sure workers are trained on how to use them.
Install safety gear before it’s needed. Before any snow falls, if you think workers might have to access a roof, install safety railings and/or raised anchor points for fall arrest gear. Make sure anchor points will be visible above the snow. Put up safety netting and edge protection where wind and slick surfaces may endanger workers.
Keep ground-level surfaces clear. Even falls at ground level can be dangerous. When winter weather is in the forecast, plan for both anti-icing and de-icing. From 15 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, treat sidewalks, roadways and other concrete or asphalt surfaces with rock salt (sodium chloride). Colder than that, switch to magnesium chloride. Below zero, calcium chloride works best. Treating surfaces before snow and ice accumulate prevents ice from bonding with the surface below and may require less salt overall.
Walk the (right) walk. Remind workers to walk slowly over surfaces that may be slick from ice, snow or frost. They should keep their hands free when possible (and not in their pockets) and keep their center of gravity over their front leg (lean forward slightly).
Observe weight limits. Check weight limits for equipment and make sure the extra weight of ice or snow on a lift platform or scaffold has not created a hazard for workers who will either clear snow or work in the area below.
Mark hazards. Snow on roofs can hide hazards such as skylights that workers can fall through. Put rails or cages around skylights, conduits or other falling hazards that may not be visible after a snowfall. Keep in mind that painted or taped boundaries will disappear under falling snow. If it’s snowing heavily, mark obstacles on the ground, perhaps with a cone, until snow can be cleared.
Stay ladder-safe. Workers should thoroughly remove snow and ice from all parts of the ladder, not just the rungs, and, as always, inspect the ladder for damage before using.
Ladders must be placed on a non-slippery, stable, level base, which gets trickier in winter.
Frozen ground that’s covered with snow makes for a slippery and uneven surface that must be leveled, de-iced and covered. On the other hand, if the day begins with temperatures below freezing then warms up, your base for the ladder may soften, rendering it unstable. The New Jersey health department recommends using plywood or particleboard to make a solid, level base over soft ground.
Even without snow or ice, frost may leave the ground slippery. Don’t put a ladder on a slippery surface. If conditions make using a ladder too risky, consider switching to a lift or aerial work platform.
Care for fall protection equipment. Keep this equipment clean, dry and out of the elements when not in use. Repeated freezing and thawing will quickly degrade materials that are left damp.
Sonja Elmquist is a writer with more than 15 years of experience writing about subjects including construction, finance and U.S. commodity producers.