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Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2018 Vol. 65 No. 11

Winter Weather Preparedness in the Workplace

Texas may be known for record summer heat and active hurricane and tornado seasons, however ice storms, snow storms and blizzards, while not as common, can and often do occur in parts of the state resulting in significant impact to affected communities. Severe winter weather can also cripple industries and endanger life. The Texas Panhandle, West Texas and North Texas are more prone to classic winter conditions but Houston and even the Rio Grande Valley have also experienced severe winter weather patterns. The recent heavy rainfall across the state has once again demonstrated that maintaining a safety mindset is required under any weather conditions. With most of the rain behind us (for now), it's a good time to inspect and conduct any structural maintenance needed before winter sets in. The safety of those who work outside and the need for preservation of exposed equipment during winter should be obvious. As temperatures drop, freezing and expansion begins and equipment is more at risk. Proper winterization of facilities is a safeguard that can protect people and infrastructure alike.

In November 2014, a sequence of events brought on by cold weather at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas resulted in disaster. Previously known issues with a pipe blockage resulted in a plan of spraying hot water onto the pipes to prevent solids from forming. However, not realizing that blockages had been cleared and that liquid was flowing, two workers were overcome and killed by toxic vapor. Two more workers died responding to the distress call.

The La Porte example revealed several issues, however a thorough inspection of equipment and proper winterization may have prevented the deadly outcome. It is the responsibility of companies to heed warnings, take corrective action and plan for the long-term maintenance of equipment while updating policies and procedures on a regular basis. A proactive approach means tending to safety issues before regulatory agencies get involved or more importantly, before a disaster occurs.

Situations like ice blockages in pipes can be subtle and unseen. Others are more obvious and usually preventable per the following examples:

  • Unhealthy temperatures in facilities
  • Assigning people to dangerous positions, such as on icy roofs or unsafe platforms
  • Bacteria and mold growth
  • Poor air quality
  • Working in hazardous environments without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE)

Winterization strategies should include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Complete system checkups, testing controls, and water testing
  • Cleaning, disinfection, and passivation (coating) of open systems
  • Insulating and use of heating trace pipes and sprinklers
  • Introducing anti-freeze to systems that are exposed to the cold
  • Scheduling annual heating, ventilation & air conditioning (HVAC) maintenance
  • Weather stripping doors and windows

Managers and supervisors should ensure they have basic winter safety plans that include:

  • Arrangements for shoveling, sweeping and clearing walkways
  • A comprehensive list of available snow and ice removal equipment at the facility (deicer, shovels, brooms, waterproof floor mats, plows),
  • A list of the supervisors responsible for the equipment and the priority of service in emergency conditions, location of equipment, and contractors who provide winter services
  • A weather communications plan for extreme conditions, such as wind, low temperatures, heavy rain, sleet, drifting snow and ice. The plan should include procedures for communication between supervisors, crews and contractors, clearly outlining the responsibility of all parties
  • A manpower plan for situations requiring emergency response
  • Inspection procedures on agency vehicles for safe winter operations, scheduled maintenance and winterization
  • Safety meetings for all drivers of agency vehicles on safe winter operating rules and expectations

Employees should be encouraged to discuss winter weather concerns with supervision. Employees should take full responsibility for:

  • Attending safety meetings or taking appropriate training
  • Following winter safety guidelines and rules
  • Wearing the appropriate clothing for inclement weather if a job involves outdoor work
  • Performing a full inspection of vehicles and safety equipment on agency vehicles before operation

Finally, it is important to stay prepared and check in with your local National Weather Service office for current conditions and winter weather forecasts. Facility managers have their hands full ensuring a clean, safe and habitable indoor and outdoor work environment, and educating employees on the various aspects of handling daily operations for emergency situations. With proper prior planning (3 Ps), this task is achievable under even the most extreme weather conditions.

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