For those many people who work alone outdoors during the winter months, the conditions in which they perform their various tasks are obviously more dangerous with increased risk of certain, potentially deadly safety hazards in the workplace.
But did you know that those who work indoors by themselves also face increased safety risks and hazards during the cold season? While not as dire as their outdoor counterparts, lone workers performing their tasks and jobs indoors must also be protected from the unique safety hazards that arrive with winter.
Slips, trips and falls
One of those winter safety hazards is the risk of slips, trips and fall, which can increase during the cold, wet months. Dangerous working conditions from ice, sleet and snow, were, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cause of more than 20,000 occupational injuries in 2017. The National Safety Council says slips, trips and falls are the one of the most dangerous safety hazards in the workplace with only exposure to harmful substances or environments and overexertion and bodily reaction listed as more dangerous and prevalent.
What’s important to note is that while more prevalent with those working outdoors in the elements, slips, trips and falls are a concern for everyone in the winter, including those working indoors and especially employees who are working alone. To identify locations where slips and falls are an occupational safety hazard, conduct at least one hazard assessment of the area or areas where work is performed. Once identified, employers and managers can then explore strategies to mitigate or eliminate the hazards which can include:
- Require daily or twice-daily inspections of walkways and work areas for obstructions and slippery surfaces.
- Place warning signs and floor safety signs.
- Resurface slippery surfaces with anti-slip coatings.
- Salt and shovel icy or snowy walkways.
- Provide employees with high-grip footwear.
- Provide a fall detection and no motion device.
- Low light and visibility
Continuing in the same vein as slips, trips, and falls, a major cause of these incidents is low light and visibility during a season when daylight is shorter, and there are various levels of snow, rain, and fog that reduce visibility even further, resulting in more injuries. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, employers must look specifically at strategic lighting to combat harmful – and sometimes fatal – falls and stumbles.
This can be identified and determined through your hazard assessments, identifying all walkways and work areas where the lighting can be improved or provided. Additionally, employers should consider on-person light options such as wearable lanterns, headlamps and/or even the humble flashlight.
Unlike slips and falls during the winter, the risk of cardiac arrest in the workplace is not as widely known or regarded. According to the OSHA, of the 220,000 cardiac arrest victims every year, roughly 10,000 of those cases occur in the workplace. To help save these people, they recommend having an automated external defibrillator (AED) available which they say can significantly increase chances of survival. Additionally, employers can make a number work culture and internal program changes to reduce the risk of occupational cardiac arrest, which can range from flexible work and vacation time to healthy work snacks and lunches.
In the stressful and frightening instance of a heart attack or cardiac arrest, coworkers need to be trained and confident in following the approved protocol of CPR and properly employing an AED. In two revealing surveys, the American Heart Association found that overall, American workers are unable to get CPR and AED training, and it is often one or the other instead of both which is important.
Additionally, the US government’s national Ready public service campaign says you can “reduce the risk of a heart attack by avoiding overexertion when shoveling snow and walking in the snow.” In many of these cases, the worker may be alone and they could collapse with a stopped heart, requiring help immediately. In these emergencies, employees could benefit from the fall detection device mentioned earlier, or a lone worker monitoring system that will send an alert if the employee has not checked in, confirming their safety.
Seasonal viruses and illness
A recent, unfortunate reality – regardless of where you live or what industry you work in – is the constant threat of an invisible virus or looming pandemic. The 2020 – 21 flu season saw more than 72,000 people die from either Covid, the flu or pneumonia. (As of February 28, more than 55,000 Americans have died of those illnesses this year.) But there are thousands and thousands more workers who must take valuable time off to recuperate from these ailments, some of which are more common in the winter such as the aforementioned flu, colds, and Covid, as well as strep throat, croup, as well as respiratory infection.
While it’s impossible for employers to completely protect their staff from viral infections, they can take a number of steps to reduce the incidence of viruses in the workplace. These include:
- Provide ample hand sanitization stations.
- Clean and upgrade the office/workplace ventilation system.
- Place signs reminding staff to wash and/or sanitize their hands.
- Provide employees with enough sick time and health benefits for recovery.
- Monitor team members for signs of stress (a stressed body and mind has a weaker immune system).
- Provide optional or mandatory face masks – depending on safety protocols.
On the other side of the team’s physical health is, of course, their mental health which can be impacted by the shorter days and darker weather – this is sometimes called seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The winter can be especially challenging for people working alone, employees who are negatively affected by a lack of (or decrease in) social and professional interaction and engagement. Other factors impacting the mental health of workers can also include lack of involvement in decision making, unreasonable workloads, unclear or unrealistic expectations, and an isolated work environment.
Like physical health benefits and coverage, employers must provide their team with mental health coverage for therapy and other valuable services and resources. Such benefits may even cover devices like lights and lamps used to treat SAD and depression. For lone workers feeling socially isolated, employers must provide regular opportunities for connection, whether it’s online or in person. Additionally, employers can also:
- Create opportunities for staff activities that benefit physical and mental health, i.e., a work running club).
- Provide extended health benefits that cover other physical activity expenses such as exercise clothing or shoes.
- Regularly check in with employees to see how they’re doing and how they can be helped.
Embrace the chilly circumstances
During winter, employers need to be more vigilant as their team members and lone workers are more vulnerable to the occupational safety hazards and risk mentioned above. Thankfully, however, you and your employees are not powerless against them. Just assessing what your team is facing will help you take the next step of developing strategies to protect them further. Quite simple, just be aware of what workers are facing and protect them to the best of your ability in these inevitable circumstances – and maybe even enjoy it and do a snow angel once in a while.