|The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to comply with hazard-specific safety and
health standards. In addition, pursuant to Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, employers must provide their employees with a workplace
free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Emergency Preparedness Guides do not and cannot enlarge or
diminish an employer's obligations under the OSH Act.
Emergency Preparedness Guides are based on presently available information, as well as current occupational safety and health provisions
and standards. The procedures and practices discussed in Emergency Preparedness Guides may need to be modified when additional, relevant
information becomes available or when OSH Act standards are promulgated or modified.
A major winter storm can be lethal. Preparing for cold weather conditions and responding to them effectively can reduce
the dangers caused by winter storms. The following frequently asked questions will help workers understand how winter storms may affect their
health and safety.
What are some different types of winter storms?
Blizzards: Winds of 35 mph or more with snow and blowing snow reducing visibility to less than ¼ mile for at least 3
Blowing Snow: Wind-driven snow that reduces visibility. Blowing snow may be falling snow and/or snow on the
ground picked up by the wind.
Snow Squalls: Brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be
Snow Showers: Snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.
Snow Flurries: Light snow falling for short durations with little or no accumulation.
Ice Storms: May include freezing rain or sleet.
What types of winter storms are more common in the different
areas of the United States?
Mid Atlantic and New England States: Heavy snow showers,
blizzards, and ice storms.
Southeastern and Gulf Coast States: Ice storms, occasional snow.
Midwest and Plains States: Heavy snow showers, blizzards, and ice storms.
Rocky Mountain States: Heavy snow showers, blizzards.
Alaska: Heavy snow showers, blizzards.
What are public warnings for winter weather and what do they mean?
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: Below freezing temperatures are expected and may cause damage to plants, crops, or fruit
Winter storm 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.
Worker Safety and Health
What workers are at increased risk of injury during winter storms?
While most workers can stay inside during a winter storm, some workers may be required to go into the storm. These may include utility
workers, law enforcement personnel, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, federal, state and local government personnel, military
personnel, highway personnel, and sanitation workers.
What kinds of injuries are associated with winter storms?
According to 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.
Some of the hazards associated with working in winter storms include:
- Driving accidents due to slippery roadways
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Slips and falls due to slippery walkways
- Hypothermia and frostbite due to the cold weather exposure
- Being struck by falling objects such as icicles, tree limbs, and utility poles
- Electrocution due to downed power lines or downed objects in contact with power lines
- Falls from heights (e.g. falls from roof or skylights while removing snow)
- Roof collapse under weight of snow (or melting snow if drains are clogged)
- Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure
- Exhaustion from working extended shifts
- Back injuries or heart attack while removing snow
What is wind chill?
Wind chill is an estimation of how cold it feels outside when the effects of temperature and wind speed are combined. Unprotected portions of
the body, such as the face or hands, can chill rapidly and should be protected as much as possible from the cold wind. A 10 mile per hour
wind combined with a 30°F temperature can have the same chilling effect on the body as a temperature of 21°F in a calm atmosphere. The
Weather Service issues this information as the wind chill index. For more
information, see OSHA's The Cold Stress Equation. OSHA Publication 3156, (1999). Also available as a 21 KB PDF, 4 pages.
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that causes freezing in the deep
layers of skin and tissue. Frostbite can cause permanent damage. It is
recognizable by a loss of feeling and a waxy-white or pale appearance in
fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes. For more information, see OSHA's The Cold Stress Equation. OSHA Publication 3156, (1998). Also available as a 21 KB PDF, 4 pages.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Symptoms
of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses,
frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion. For more information, see OSHA's The Cold Stress Equation. OSHA Publication 3156, (1998). Also available as a 21 KB PDF, 4 pages.
What can be done to avoid frostbite and hypothermia?
- Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses/injuries and what to do to help those who are affected.
- Train the workforce about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
- Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
- Layer clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures. Wear a hat and gloves, in addition to underwear that will keep water away from the skin (polypropylene).
- Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
- Perform work during the warmest part of the day.
- Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
- Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
- Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) or alcohol.
- Eat warm, high-calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.
Who is at increased risk of frostbite and hypothermia?
Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with inadequate food,
clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3) people who
remain outdoors for long periods - the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4)
people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs. Victims may also include people with predisposing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension,
people that take certain medication
(check with your healthcare provider and ask if any medicines you are taking affect you while working in cold environments),
and people in
poor physical condition or who have a poor diet. For more information, see Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety.
How do I treat a person with frostbite or hypothermia?
If frostbite or hypothermia is suspected, begin warming the person slowly and seek immediate medical assistance. Warm the person's trunk
first. Use your own body heat to help. Arms and legs should be warmed last because stimulation of the limbs can drive cold blood toward the
heart and lead to heart failure. Put person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket. Never give a frostbite or hypothermia
victim something with caffeine in it (like coffee or tea) or alcohol. Caffeine, a stimulant, can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten
the effects the cold has on the body. Alcohol, a depressant, can slow the heart and also hasten the ill effects of cold body temperatures.
How do I walk safely on snow and ice?
- Walking on snow or ice is especially treacherous and wearing proper footwear is essential. A pair of well insulated boots with good rubber
treads is a must for walking during or after a winter storm. Keeping a pair of rubber over-shoes with good treads which fit over your street
shoes is a good idea during the winter months.
- When walking on an icy or snow-covered walkway, take short steps and walk at a slower pace so you can react quickly to a change in traction.
- When walking on a sidewalk which has not been cleared and you must walk in the street, walk against the traffic and as close to the curb
as you can.
- Be on the lookout for vehicles which may have lost traction and are slipping towards you. Be aware that approaching vehicles may not be
able to stop at crosswalks or traffic signals.
- At night, wear bright clothing or reflective gear, as dark clothing will make it difficult for motorists to see you.
- During the daytime, wear sunglasses to help you see better and avoid hazards.
What hazards are associated with repairing downed or damaged power lines?
The work activities involved with repairing downed or damaged lines entail many of the activities involved in installing and removing
overhead lines and in general maintenance on overhead lines. The crucial difference is that in emergency conditions, such as winter storms,
there are unknown hazards and the potential for changing hazards as work progresses. Under these conditions workers must be extra vigilant
Potential hazards include:
- Electrocution by contacting downed energized lines, or contacting objects, such as broken tree limbs, in contact with fallen lines.
- Falls from heights.
- Being struck or crushed by falling poles, towers or parts thereof, tree limbs, ice accumulation on lines, towers and poles.
- Being injured in vehicular accidents when responding to an emergency situation.
- Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure.
What protective measures should be utilized when working on or around downed or damaged power lines?
Stay well clear of any downed or damaged power lines. Establish a safe distance from the lines and report the incident to the responsible
authority. Only properly-trained electrical utility workers should handle damaged power lines.
Electrical utility workers should first assess the hazards present in order to minimize the chances of exacerbating the situation. Ideally
the lines involved should be de-energized, but this may not be possible in all situations.
When working on downed or damaged power lines, electrical workers should utilize proper electrical safety work practices and personal
protective equipment, as usual. However, as mentioned previously, extra caution should be exercised when working in winter storms, due to the
adverse conditions present.
What hazards exist during removal of downed trees during a winter storm, and what safety precautions should be taken?
Clearing downed trees is a critical job during a winter storm. When winter storms occur, downed trees can block
public roads and damage power lines. Emergency crews are often sent out to clear downed trees during a winter storm.
Potential hazards include:
- Electrocution by contacting downed energized lines or contacting broken tree limbs in contact with fallen lines.
- Falls from trees.
- Being struck or crushed by falling tree limbs or ice.
- Being injured by emergency equipment such as chain saws and chippers.
Proper PPE including gloves, chaps, foot protection, eye protection, fall protection, hearing protection and head protection should be
worn by workers
using chainsaws and chippers to clear downed trees.
Only appropriate power equipment that is built to be used outdoors and in wet conditions should be used. All saws, chippers, and other tools
should be used properly and according to their intended application. It is important that all equipment is well-maintained and functioning
correctly in order for use. In addition, all equipment should have proper guarding, working controls, and other safety features as installed
by the manufacturer.
What safety precautions can I take if I must drive in a winter storm?
Inspect the vehicle to ensure the following systems are operating properly:
- Brakes: Brakes should provide even and balanced braking. Also check that brake fluid is at the proper level.
- Cooling System: Ensure a proper mixture of 50/50 antifreeze and water in the cooling system at the proper level.
- Electrical System: Check that battery is fully charged and that connections are clean. Check that the alternator belt is in good
condition with proper tension.
- Engine: Inspect all engine systems.
- Exhaust System: Check exhaust for leaks and that all clamps and hangers are snug.
- Tires: Check for proper tread depth and no signs of damage or uneven wear. Check for proper tire inflation.
- Oil: Check that oil is at proper level.
- Visibility Systems: Inspect all exterior lights, defrosters (windshield and rear window), and wipers. Install winter windshield wipers.
Also carry an emergency kit in the vehicle with the following items:
- Blankets/sleeping bags
- Cellular telephone or two-way radio
- Windshield scraper
- Snow brush
- Flashlight with fresh/extra batteries
- Extra winter clothes
- Tow chain
- Traction aids (bag of sand or cat litter)
- Emergency flares
- Jumper cables
- Road maps
For more information, see the National Safety Council's Winter, Your Car and You [45 KB PDF, 2 pages].
What should I do if a winter storm strands me in my vehicle?
Stay in the vehicle. Do not leave the vehicle to search for assistance unless help is visible within 100 yards. You may become disoriented
and lost in blowing and drifting snow. Display a trouble sign by hanging a brightly colored cloth on the radio antenna and raising the hood.
Turn on the vehicle's engine for about 10 minutes each hour and run the heat to keep warm. Also, turn on the vehicle's dome light when the
vehicle is running as an additional signal. Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow, and open a downwind
window slightly for ventilation. Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Do minor exercises to keep up circulation. Clap hands and move
arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long. If more than one person is in the vehicle, take turns sleeping. For
warmth, huddle together. Use newspapers, maps, and even the removable car mats for added insulation. Avoid overexertion since cold weather
puts an added strain on the heart. Unaccustomed exercise such as shoveling snow or pushing a vehicle can bring on a heart attack or make
other medical conditions worse. Be aware of symptoms of dehydration.
Factsheet: Winter Storms and Extreme Cold. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Cold Stress Equation. OSHA Publication 3156, (1998). Also available as a 21 KB PDF, 4 pages.
Winter Storms. American Red Cross.
Winter Weather Safety and Awareness.
National Weather Service.
Winter, Your Car and You [45 KB PDF, 2 pages]. National Safety Council (NSC). (2009, April).
Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety.
US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Centers for Disease Control and
Contact the OSHA Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management
at 202-693-2300 for assistance accessing PDF materials.