Winter Weather Poses Safety Challenges for Inexperienced Technicians
From getting dressed to driving, young technicians have a lot to learn when it comes to winter safety
“Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”
That quote from American musician Tom Lehrer may have a certain ring to it, but for HVAC technicians, the bad weather probably looks worst when they are attempting to perform a rooftop inspection in the middle of a blizzard.
The fact of the matter is, being an HVAC technician can, at times, be a dangerous proposition, and that is true whether it is a balmy 85°F in southern Florida or a frigid 18° in northern Wisconsin.
Each season brings unique safety challenges, however, keeping technicians safe in the winter months can prove especially difficult.
More than 116,000 Americans are injured and over 1,300 are killed on snowy, slushy, or icy pavement every winter, per Safe Winter Roads. In 2014 alone, there were 42,480 workplace injuries or illnesses from ice, sleet, or snow that required at least one day off work as a result, per Powerblanket.
“While there are several seasonal challenges for our techs, we can always count on extreme winter conditions to appear with little warning as narrow bands of intense precipitation are produced from what we call the ‘lake effect snow machine,’” said Rick Pavia, environmental, health and safety director, Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, Rochester, New York. “This snowfall is difficult to predict as we may know when but not where it will be a problem. One town will receive several inches of snow an hour, but a few neighborhoods over only gets a dusting.
“The greatest safety concern in these cases is two-fold: [technicians] driving to their work sites and safe access when they get there,” he added.
Ensuring technicians are safe on the roads is of paramount concern to contractors looking to foster safe work environments for their employees. This means both the trucks and the techs need to be properly prepared for winter weather.
“We do truck inspections for tires, brakes, mirrors, lights, and wipers,” said Matt Bergstrom, owner and president, Thornton and Grooms, Farmington Hills, Michigan. “We also do winter driving safety training annually — just as a reminder.”
Pavia said Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning purchases vehicle tires appropriate for the areas where they work and ensures the remaining tread depth is sufficient before first snowfall.
“Our safety training also includes an annual refresher on winter driving practices and emergency equipment to carry,” he said. “As for safe access, we do not want our techs driving into unsafe conditions or carrying tools/equipment on slippery and obstructed surfaces.
“We remind our customers to clear their driveways and sidewalks of snow before we arrive, but we also have our technicians stock shovels and salt for the times they require additional pathways,” added Pavia.
Once technicians have arrived at a job site, safety concerns shift from the roads to the surrounding work environment.
“We make sure they [technicians] are dressed properly, we keep in contact with them if they are working outside, and all of our technicians have Yaktrax for their shoes, so they do not fall on slick pavement or especially on roofs,” said Butch Welsch, owner, Welsch Heating & Cooling Co., St. Louis.
One of the most common mistakes Welsch sees from inexperienced technicians is not dressing warm enough for the elements around them.
“They must wear a hat on their head and gloves for their hands to avoiding freezing,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is difficult to work with gloves on, so, often, the gloves need to be removed for tedious work.
“For installers, if the weather is extremely cold, we advise the customer we will be doing the furnace replacement and indoor work that day but will have to return when the weather is reasonable to set the outside condensing unit and finish up the job,” he continued. “Most customers are very understanding about this. It isn’t the most cost effective, however, it is one of the costs of doing business when you are in extreme conditions.”
Welsch’s team also suggests technicians and installers keep a spare set of dry clothes in their vehicle in case they get caught out side in rain, freezing rain, or snow.
Younger techs sometimes fail to have the right type of clothing because they either don’t know how to dress appropriately for the weather, or they don’t have the funds to purchase the needed gear, according to Bergstrom.
Thornton and Grooms believes educating techs on safety is important, so the company provides safety training in October and November to help them prepare for the coming months.
“Even on the mildest of days with temperatures well above freezing, a soaked foot from stepping in a puddle can completely change a tech’s day,” said Pavia. “Keeping dry is critical, so investing in a pair of waterproof work boots and carrying a spare set of work clothes and socks is a very good idea.”
Pavia also highlighted that, for many techs, appropriate work footwear may mean they have steel-toe boots.
“However, these boots are colder than composite toe in the same conditions, so preparing for the cold weather by purchasing insulated and waterproof composite-toe boots is a good start,” he said. “Since our employees also work with their hands in freezing and windy conditions, choosing the right insulated gloves that allow tasks to be completed with them on is also important.”
This layering is critical — while a bulky jacket may be great outside of work, the need to maneuver in tight spaces is often necessary on the job, so having several thinner layers will do well to keep warm but not restrict movement. Having a thermal base layer can go a long way. Stocking an extra pair of wool socks can also be a huge help.
It is also essential to be mindful of a customer’s home, no matter how bad the weather may be outside of it.
“As our techs potentially enter and exit a home/business multiple times, extra care is necessary in not tracking dirty snow and slush inside,” said Pavia. “If techs are not careful, a customer’s white carpet can soon become a spotted mess as the snow and ice melts on their footwear.”
Matthew Pillius, owner and CEO of Royal Class Service in New Windsor, New York, believes the best tip for young, inexperienced contractors is to never underestimate the weather.
“It will frequently surprise you,” he said.
4 STEPS TO KEEP WORKERS AND FACILITIES SAFE
Making smart, informed judgment calls is an important part of the job for any manager or supervisor. Here, Kelsey Rzepecki from Graphic Products breaks down four steps that can be taken to maintain a safe work environment for any size business this season.
1. Review Your Emergency Action Plan
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires workplaces with 10 or more employees to have a written emergency action plan (EAP). Below are important considerations for your workplace.
- Impact on operations: Discuss the most common seasonal hazards that occur in your area, how they have affected operations in the past, and what everyone can do to prepare;
- Emergency communications: Ensure employees know how to respond, who to contact, and how to communicate effectively in emergency situations;
- Emergency drills: Simulate scenarios in your facility regularly, and evaluate areas for improvement; and
- Share resources: Provide easily accessible resources to all employees that outline the most important workplace emergency procedures, like contact information and procedural reminders.
2. Perform a Job Hazard Analysis
The goal of a job hazard analysis (JHA) is to identify hazards in the workplace before they occur. Winter introduces unique and often unprecedented hazards. It’s important to consider how your worker’s normal tasks, tools, and work environment may need to change.
- Conduct a walk-through: Focus on one job at a time to determine work areas that could pose new hazards. Always involve your employees in the JHA process to prevent the chance of oversight;
- Protect your building: Identify areas vulnerable to damage due to extreme weather. Maintain your roof; clear debris in gutters and downspouts; inspect for water leaks, cracked concrete, and ponding water; and prepare HVAC systems for winter with preventive maintenance. Clearly mark pipes and shut-off valves, so they can be easily located in the event of a major leak or burst pipe emergency;
- Assign protective controls: Determine what you need to provide extra safeguards for hazardous areas and tasks. To effectively address modifications, implement a “cold weather response” plan. Equip work areas with supplies to help quickly combat hazards, like roof leaks, using roof and pipe leak diverters and absorbent pads and rolls to eliminate slip hazards; and
- Document your plan: Outline your findings, and communicate them to your employees. Include all recommended changes to existing processes, new safety precautions, and introduce any new equipment.
3. Prevent Cold-related Illnesses and Injuries
Anyone working in the cold can be at risk of cold-related illnesses and injuries, but you can apply some controls to ensure worker safety.
- Adapt personal protective equipment (PPE): Evaluate if changes in PPE are needed to ensure worker safety. Ensure employees have access to protective clothing that provides warmth, and require them to dress properly for the conditions;
- Prevent fatigue: Keep energy levels up, and prevent dehydration by providing workers with warm fluids and water. Also, try to minimize activities that causes heavy perspiration or reduces circulation; and
- Have a buddy system: Have employees work in pairs to watch for symptoms of cold-related illnesses.
4. Highlight Hazards Using Visuals
Bring hazards to attention using a variety of visual communication methods, including signage, floor marking, wayfinding, and more. Poor visibility plays a large and dangerous role in the winter that can be detrimental if you don’t prepare for its effects.
- Keep areas clear: Make sure pathways, work areas, and stairways are clear from unnecessary items that could cause potential injury;
- Emphasize hard-to-see areas: Clearly highlight areas, items, and machinery when it becomes more difficult to navigate in low-light conditions. Outline egress pathways, door entries, low-clearance ceilings, and other important areas that are in need of extra attention using glow-in-the-dark or reflective tape;
- Provide extra traction: Identify locations that are prone to being slippery by applying tread tape to keep employees stable. Tread tapes are designed for areas that have a tendency to ice over, such as stairs, doorways, ramps, and handrails;
- Implement temporary and outdoor signage: Address hazards that may lurk in your facility as well as outdoors by placing durable, premade signs for icy conditions to prevent slips, trips, and falls. Apply signage by door entries and parking lots, or use barricades, floor signs, and cones to warn passersby of hazards; and
- Upgrade your wayfinding: Locate where valuable signage and images should be installed to alert personnel of present hazards and recommended safe practices.
Publication date: 12/18/2017