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Slips, Trips and Falls: Winter Hazards

Wintertime is upon us and with it come added hazards. Road conditions are a major contributing factor in collisions during the winter months in Canada. For winter driving tips, check out this blog post. Driving on ice, snow and slush isn’t the only hazard we are faced with in the winter months. There are several ways that we need to adjust our activities in order to avoid injury and illness in the winter months.

Walking on snow and ice

gPolar-Bear-slipping-on-iceWalking on snow and ice can be perilous. There are lots of resources online and in print that talk about injuries sustained by seniors slipping and falling, but what we often forget about is that anyone walking on a slippery surface can get hurt. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fit you are. While you might not break a bone slipping on ice, you are likely to wind up with a painful bruise or scrape. Wrist injuries are also common from ice-related falls and can affect people of any age. Torn or strained ligaments or a broken wrist can cause long term or permanent discomfort or impairments to your range of motion.

There are several ways that you can reduce your risk of slipping while walking on ice and snow.

    • Choose a good pair of winter boots. They should be warm and waterproof with a thick, non-slip sole made of natural rubber with good traction. A low heel makes it easier to maintain your balance. Avoid wearing high heels on ice. If high heels are an important part of your outfit, carry them with you and change into them once you are indoors.
    • Keep your sidewalks, driveways and other surfaces clear of ice and snow and report hazardous sidewalks and pathways to your municipality.
    • Slow down! Spread your feet about a foot apart to provide a good base of support before you begin walking. When taking a step, place your whole foot down at once and shift your bodyweight to that foot before lifting the other. Take smaller steps that you typically take on dry, summer sidewalks. Some people find it helpful to shuffle rather than take steps when walking on icy surfaces.
    • Keep your centre of gravity over your front leg.  Lean slightly forward as you walk and hold your arms out slightly to help you balance.
    • Keep your hands free. Keeping your hands in your pockets makes it more challenging to remain balanced and also increases the risk of injuring yourself more severely if you do fall. Wear warm gloves so that you don’t feel tempted to keep your hands in your pockets.

If all else fails, take some advice from penguins!

“Walk Like a Penguin”


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Cold Stress

Winter weather brings with it increased risk of hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot. These three conditions are common consequences of cold stress but they can be avoided. When your body gets cold, blood vessels in your skin, arms and legs constrict, decreasing blood flow to your extremities. This helps your critical organs stay warm, but can lead to frostbite. Wind chill accelerates heat loss, further increasing risk of hypothermia and frostbite. For example, if the temperature is -30°C, with a 15 km/h wind your skin can freeze in about one minute. With a 48 km/h wind at that temperature, it can freeze in 30 seconds!

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls to or below 95°F. When it is mild, shivering will occur but when the condition elevates, shivering may stop and symptoms may include confusion, slurred speech, slow breathing and/or heart rate, loss of consciousness and even death.

courselogoFrostbite occurs when body tissues freeze and can result in a need for amputation. It typically occurs at below-freezing temperatures but can occur above freezing due to wind chill. Symptoms include numbness and reddened skin with grey/white patches. The affected area may feel firm/hard and may blister. Frostbite is most common on fingers, toes, ears and noses, or other areas that are easily exposed.

Trench foot is a non-freezing injury to the foot caused by lengthy exposure to a wet and cold environment. Symptoms include redness, swelling, numbness and blisters. While trench foot is not a winter-weather exclusive injury, risk of it occurring is heightened when the ground is wet and cold.

All of these conditions can be avoided by dressing properly and knowing and respecting your body’s limits.

There are very simple ways to avoid frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot:

  • Cover your head/ears: The importance of a proper winter hat cannot be overstated. Make sure that your hat fully covers your ears to help  you avoid frostbite. It is also a good idea to wear a scarf or balaclava, even goggles, to keep your neck and face covered. In extreme cold or high winds, any exposed skin is dangerous.
  • Wear layered clothing: Proper layering allows your skin to breathe, while trapping in your body heat and keeping moisture and wind out. The layer closest to your skin should be made of a material that wicks perspiration away from your skin. The middle layer(s) should act as insulation, trapping in your body heat and trapping perspiration. The outer layer should also trap body heat and should keep water, dampness and wind out. Think athletic wear, fleece/wool, water/windproof shell.
  • Wear proper footwear and handwear: Your boots should be insulated and waterproof with good traction to help you avoid slipping. Tight fitting footwear restricts bloodflow, so you should wear boots with room for one thick or two thin pairs of socks without feeling tight. Adding a pair of thermal socks and carrying an extra pair of liners is also a good idea. Your mittens or gloves should also be well insulated and waterproof. If you don’t require gloves for dexterity reasons, mittens are a better choice as they warm the hands more effectively than gloves.
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration and exhaustion increase your risk of hypothermia. Warm drinks can be helpful, but limit your caffeine intake and do not consume any alcohol. Hot water with lemon is an excellent option (go ahead and add a dollop of honey if you like!), as it keeps you hydrated and warm without a bunch of caffeine or sugar. A little vitamin C doesn’t hurt either!
  • Stay covered: If you get hot while you are working outdoors in the cold/wind, unzip your jacket slightly for a short period to let some heat out. Do not remove your hat or handwear. Exposed skin in cold temperatures is dangerous, even if you feel hot. Many winter jackets and snow pants have zippered vents around the armpits and thighs – when you feel too hot, try unzipping those for a few minutes. Just don’t forget to zip them back up again.

Of course, beyond dressing properly, it is important to limit the amount of time spent outside in extreme cold/wind. If your work is outdoors, your employer should:

  • Train you on cold stress hazards and prevention.
  • Provide engineering controls (such as heaters, heated rest areas, shelter, wind blocking, or other).
  • Gradually introduce workers to the cold, monitor workers and schedule regular breaks in warm areas.

For more information on how to reduce your risk of cold stress conditions, you can take our Cold Stress Awareness course online.

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Hanging Christmas decorations

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It may sound silly, but physicians at Foothills Hospital say that 40 people have been critically injured and two have died while hanging Christmas lights in Calgary and southern Alberta over a 10-year period. That study only tracked people who suffered multiple traumatic injuries, so a single broken leg or twisted ankle doesn’t count in those numbers. “I know the number 40 doesn’t sound like a lot, but for such a specific mechanism with that severe of injury, that’s quite a lot,” said Dr. Michael Driedger, the study’s lead author. “If we look at all falls related to the installation of Christmas lights at that time, it’s probably more around 400.”*

There are things you can do to prevent injuries while decorating your home for Christmas.

  • Work as a team. Don’t pull out the ladder and go out there by yourself. Have a family member or friend spot you and help you ensure the ladder is steady.
  • Wear footwear with a good grip. Make sure the treads on your soles are not full of ice and snow. When you’re tromping through snow, clear out the grooves in your tread before your start climbing again.
  • Use a high-quality, sturdy ladder. Make sure it is properly positioned and braced by your partner.
  • Be aware of maintaining your balance. Don’t over-reach from your ladder. You should never stretch to reach a spot. Climb down and move your ladder instead.
  • Think one step ahead. Don’t just wing it and start hanging lights. Plan out how you are going to hang them and ensure that you have everything you need ready to go.

You can learn more about ladder safety by taking our Ladder Safety Training course!

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*”Installing Christmas lights leads to 40 critical injuries, two deaths in Calgary and area over 10 years“, Robson Fletcher, Metro News, Published on Monday, November 24, 2014.