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Autumn is the time to get equipment and staff ready before the bad weather kicks in, despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19. Before long, roads will need to be plowed, snow and ice will affect our footing, and cold spells could wreak havoc on municipal buildings. Winter always brings certain types of claims, and taking steps to prevent them goes far in limiting risk to people and property. To help you manage next season’s risks, we offer this overview of some common winter claims – and strategies to prevent them. 

Plow-Related Risks. Your plow drivers work in all weather conditions and are on the road when few others are. You can’t eliminate all risk, yet your highway department can take these steps to reduce their chance of accidents. 

  • When attaching or removing plow blades for the season, workers must use common sense and should have assistive equipment to keep themselves safe. Hand injuries as well as shoulder and back strains and injuries are notorious for their long-lasting and sometimes life-altering effects.
  • Perform pre-season equipment maintenance. Have drivers check all safety equipment – lights, strobes, wipers, defrosters, communications equipment, and tires – before every work shift. Repair or replace damaged equipment without undue delay.
  • Before winter arrives, supervisors should ensure that highway drivers get experience operating their designated vehicle, pre-drive their assigned plow routes with the plow (and wing) attached, and mark obstacles on their routes. Don’t let their annual “shakedown” ride be in adverse weather!
  • Supervisors need to monitor driver fatigue, especially in long or successive storms with extended periods in the driver’s seat. Make it a priority to check in regularly with drivers to evaluate their fatigue levels. Selectboards can support this by being willing to use contracted help at times when the municipal highway crew is too tired to drive safely.

Slips, Trips, and Falls. Every year, 25 to 30 percent of all PACIF workers’ compensation claims are related to employees’ slips, trips, or falls. PACIF also receives liability claims from members of the public who lose their footing on municipal property. Many of these events take place in the winter, so consider these ways to reduce the potential for this cause of injury. 

  • Many slips and falls occur when employees get in and out of vehicles. (In the past five years, PACIF has spent nearly $1 million on workers’ compensation claims related to this.) Operators of trucks and heavy equipment should, in all seasons, face the vehicle whenever entering or exiting it. In winter, it’s particularly important that they clear as much snow and ice off of steps, grab bars, etc. as possible – and report any damaged equipment so the problem can be repaired.
  • Footwear, also important for all employees year-round, is even more so during winter months. Highway personnel should wear safety toed winter boots with a lug sole while at work. First responders should wear season-appropriate footwear with an anti-slip sole. Both groups would greatly benefit from using Yaktrax or similar over-the-shoe anti-slip devices or wearing footwear equipped with Vibram “Arctic Grip” soles.
  • Pay special attention to all building entrances and exits, parking lots, and walking paths near and around buildings. Sanding and salting, in addition to plowing, is necessary to reduce slips and falls. If you use a contractor to maintain these areas, check the service contract and make sure it is explicit about the frequency of maintenance during storms.
  • Monitor floors just inside building entrances, where melting snow and slush create slippery areas. Use large absorbent floor mats to catch this snow and water. During storms, you may need to post special signs to warn people of a slippery floor.

Water Leaks from Frozen and Broken Water or Sprinkler Systems. The first major cold spell can result in a broken water or sprinkler pipe, with water damage resulting.  

  • Think ahead about known cold spots in your buildings and plan how to adequately heat areas where water or sprinkler lines run. In some cases, this can be as simple as opening a closet door or turning on the heat.
  • Have your sprinkler system serviced by a qualified vendor at least annually. This service should include system tests and flowing water (as appropriate).
  • For dry sprinkler systems, learn where the system’s low spots are and make sure that your vendor drains the water and condensation from them.
  • Furnaces and boilers can and do fail. Equip infrequently used buildings with low temperature sensors to alert you if a heat source malfunctions. Follow up with repairs to limit any damage.

Winter can arrive suddenly (as it did last year), so it’s best not to delay your preparations. Taking the time now to start acting on the tips in this article will a go a long way to keeping your employees, vehicles, facility users, and structures safe. For more winter loss prevention ideas, reach out to your loss control consultant or email us at losscontrol@vlct.org. We are always available for you.

Fred Satink, Deputy Director, Underwriting and Loss Control
VLCT Risk Management Services