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Riders on the Storm: Waste Safety in Inclement Weather

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful.” This winter’s frigid temperatures and record-breaking snowfalls in various parts of the country probably inspired a lot of singing of “Let it Snow.” And while the crooner of that tune may have no place to go, the reality is that many people do. They have to go to work. Thus, inclement weather — snow, ice, wind storms or torrential rain — raises serious questions and concerns for employers, including waste companies, who must protect their employees as they brave the elements to provide crucial services to customers.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the severe winter weather in the United States during the first week of February alone may have caused more than $1 billion in insured losses. These statistics already put 2011 on a path toward equaling, or even surpassing, the $2.6 billion in winter-related insurance claims generated nationwide in 2010. A good portion of the damage in that first week of February was the result of wet, heavy snow, which collapsed roofs, porches, awnings, carports and outbuildings. In addition, storms prompted plant and facilities closures, and created service and power disruptions. The full economic impact is yet to be realized. And of course, there was significant auto and truck damage due to weather-related traffic accidents. In Ohio, slick road conditions resulted in a garbage truck slipping off the road and into a ditch, while another truck tipped over completely.

For waste companies, this winter has proven especially challenging and dangerous. For instance, a Chicago sanitation worker suffered a fatal heart attack after getting out of his garbage truck to shovel the snow blocking his access to some carts. Overall, heavy snow throughout much of the country made it treacherous for garbage truck drivers to navigate roads and collect trash.

Like other service providers who brave rain, snow, sleet and hail to complete their rounds, waste companies must take precautions to protect employees’ safety in risky weather conditions:

Watch the forecast. While weather forecasters are not always right, they do give some indication when bad weather is imminent. Use those predictions to give your firm some lead time to prepare operations and employees for whatever weather pattern is drifting your way.

Wear protective clothing. This winter, in some parts of the United States, temperatures dipped to 20 degrees below zero. For employees who remain outside for the majority of their workday, insulated clothes, boots with appropriate traction and gloves are essential.

Avoid injuries. On-the-job injuries, such as muscle strains, are more likely to occur in someone whose muscles aren’t warmed up. Additionally, cold extremities may lack sensitivity and thus be more prone to injury by machinery or by lifting. Give employees information on how to keep their hands and feet warm and nimble. Also, provide a brief time to stretch and get warm at the beginning of each shift and at intervals throughout.

Train drivers for hazardous conditions. It’s not just icy roadways that wreak havoc. Excessive wind and rain-slicked roads can be just as hazardous. According to the National Research Council, weather-impacted driving conditions are associated with 7,000 fatalities, 800,000 injuries and more than 1.5 million vehicular crashes annually in the United States. Drivers need to be aware of how to drive in severe weather and what to do in case of an accident.

Maintain vehicles and equip them to operate in inclement weather. Prior to the weather turning bad, vehicles should undergo a winter safety check. The mechanic should check tires, fluids, batteries, heaters, brakes, defrosters, antifreeze and other components that will ensure the employees’ safety. Chains should be used where appropriate.

Keep emergency tools on hand. Each truck should carry emergency tools, such as a snow scraper, broom, blanket, flares, first aid kit and flashlight. A bag of sand, small shovel and booster cables may also come in handy.

Have a clearly articulated inclement weather policy. It helps to have policies clearly stated in advance, such as in an employee handbook. A clear inclement weather policy helps avoid confusion on issues such as who needs to come into work and how pay is handled when the company suspends service due to weather.

By now, most hope the winter weather is over and done. But with spring rains and hurricane season approaching, it’s clear that Mother Nature doesn’t hold back during any time of year. Taking the right precautions can minimize stress, lessen potential insurance losses, keep employees warm and safe, and keep your business functioning no matter what the weather.

Matt Gartner works for XL Specialty Insurance Company.

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