Playing it Safe

Be prepared when Mother Nature gives you the cold shoulder.

No matter how well you do your job, at some point, you’re going to be left out in the cold—literally. So you’d better be prepared. While you can’t control when Mother Nature is going to unleash the next winter storm, you can control how effectively and safely you deal with it. This means making sure your equipment is in a state of readiness throughout the winter and that crews can take to the streets at a moment’s notice. It also means instructing your drivers not only how to safely operate a truck, plow and spreader, but also what to do should equipment fail or if they suffer an accident. Ideally, proper planning, training and equipment maintenance would prevent this from happening; however, sometimes no amount of preparation can prevent an accident and equipment can be as unpredictable as Mother Nature, regardless of upkeep. So your best approach is to prepare for even the worst-case scenario.

Keep it up

Well-maintained equipment, while not foolproof, is one of the best ways to optimize the job performance of your crews and, more importantly, it also helps ensure their safety. Equipment that breaks down frequently is not only frustrating and costly to your business, it is also dangerous. For example, a bad spreader can get stuck or jammed and cause you to have to get out of your truck in the middle of a storm; a blade with hydraulics that have not been properly maintained can rupture and spray pressure fluid or cause the blade to act erratically; old wiper blades can impair your vision and possibly cause an accident. You do not want to have to deal with these problems at 2 a.m. with an 8-inch snowstorm in progress. These are also things you would want to prevent your crew from dealing with, too. Not only does poor maintenance mean lost work hours and decreased productivity, but the problems that result due to poorly maintained equipment also place you and your crew in situations where you and they are exposed to dangerous weather.

You should always perform pre-season maintenance and evaluate your equipment’s ability to cope with the upcoming winter. For plows, this means changing the transmission fluid, hydraulic oil and flushing the entire system, including the hoses. Remove the motor and pump to clean and inspect them. Also check and adjust the trip spring tension and all pins and bolts on the plow for any cracks or rust. To reduce rust, coat fasteners with Lithium grease. Be sure to follow the guidelines in your operator’s manual or take your equipment to be professionally serviced.

Good equipment maintenance does not end with a pre-season check-up. Despite the rugged appearance of snow-removal equipment, you’ve got to care for and maintain it regularly. Not doing so will have a definite impact on its efficiency and safety. This means you have to commit to pre-route inspection and maintenance—even if it’s daily. Check for loose or missing bolts, nuts or washers and re-torque bolts regularly. Lubricate moving parts often because exposure to snow, ice, salt and road debris will quickly wash lubrication away. Also clean all moving, sliding or rotating parts at the end of each service cycle and apply a rust preventative before storage for even short periods of time to prevent corrosion.

For your own good

Along with keeping your equipment well maintained, it’s just as important to prepare yourself and your crews for snow fighting. Remember that the dangers of being out in a winter storm are real and can be life threatening. The more precautions you take, the better your chances of avoiding injury. With a little planning, you can help minimize the risks associated with hazardous winter weather and keep crews up and running. Take the following guidelines into consideration when developing your safety plan.

  • Dress code. Carry a full change of clothes with you in a watertight container. The severity of frostbite and hypothermia increase when socks, boots and gloves are wet. If a driver has to get out and adjust his equipment, snow will quickly melt on his warm clothing and saturate it. Make sure your drivers realize the dangers of being in wet pants and socks too long. Also, should equipment require more than a quick repair, the driver will appreciate having extra layers to put on while waiting for assistance.
  • In addition to carrying extra layers of dry clothing, you can also make use of commercial hand and feet packs. These packs will emit heat when cracked and shaken to provide hours of warmth, which should be long enough to last until help arrives.

  • Communication. Two-way radios, cell phones and pagers have increased the safety of all snow fighters over the past 10 years, but it is important to remember that no one device is foolproof. Does your base antenna have a generator back-up just in case the electricity goes down? Do you know the areas where your cell phone goes “dead”? Do you keep a back-up battery for your cell phone just in case the cigarette lighter adapter gives out? The cold weather works against the effectiveness of many communication devices. If left in the cold for extended periods of time, equipment like cell phones and pagers will lose battery capacity.
  • Use the communication resources you do have to the fullest. Instruct each of your drivers to call-in every 20 to 30 minutes to report his or her location and progress. If for some reason communication is lost with one of your snow fighters, it is important that you can target an area to search for him or her. Constant communication with dispatch will go a long way in keeping your crews safe. If radio or phone communications are working, tell your drivers to stay in their vehicles should a problem occur. It is better to be safely stranded in a dry cab than be wandering aimlessly in a blizzard.

  • Regular routes. Assigning regular routes to your drivers helps minimize confusion while maximizing safety. By assigning regular routes and locations, drivers become familiar with hazards. They learn where manholes stick up, guardrails end, where signposts are placed, which parking lots have curbs, etc. The driver becomes comfortable with his target area and you become comfortable knowing which drivers are in which areas. Also, as your drivers get to know their target areas, remind them to make note of the 24-hour service stations. These locations can be great places for breaks, food and warm beverages.
  • Fuel-up. Snacks and drinks are vital for sustaining energy. Concentration and stress are high during snow removal, which means that your heart rate is up and you are burning calories faster than normal. Remind drivers to keep high-protein snacks on hand to keep their energy levels on pace with their workload. Let them know when they can stop for a warm meal, especially if they have been working for more than eight hours. And no matter how warm a drink of whiskey feels, remind drivers that under no circumstances should they drink alcohol while working for you.
  • Rotate out. Even when a snowstorm requires your crews to be out around the clock, you should put a limit on the number of individual driving hours. Some companies like to run two 12-hour shifts or three 8-hour shifts. This may not sound practical, but it is a wise practice, especially if you are using large trucks that require your drivers to have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Most States have laws restricting the amount of time or number of miles a person with a CDL can drive before taking an extended break that includes sleep. Productivity and profits are important, but remember that nothing can decrease profits like an injury or fatality.
  • Visibility. Make sure that your drivers are visible during a snowstorm. Visibility is directly correlated with safety and accident prevention. Keep in mind that there is often more than one vehicle or one contractor working an area. Sometimes simply traveling from one area to the next puts you in the same path as city or county snow fighters. In these situations, making sure your equipment is visible can prevent an accident. Install strobes, flashers and reflectors on equipment so that they can see you coming.

Nothing can dampen morale or cut into profits like an accident. Remind drivers regularly of safe practices and the procedures they should follow in case of an emergency. While being prepared cannot prevent an accident, it can certainly minimize the damaging effects of one.

John A. Habermann, P.E. is a research engineer for the Indiana LTAP Center at Purdue University (Lafayette, Ind.). You can contact him by e-mail at


Hypothermia (“hypo” meaning low and “thermia” meaning heat) is a serious condition, but one that you can guard against. During hypothermia, your body is losing more heat than it is producing. If untreated, it can result in long-term physical effects and even death.

To guard against hypothermia while fighting winter storms, the best proactive approach is to wear clean, dry, layered clothing. Layers will help you adjust to the exertion of your activities and fluctuations in the temperature. Also, if an outer layer gets wet, you will be able to take off the damp clothing and still have a couple of layers left to keep your body warm. If your clothes do somehow become wet, it’s imperative that you change them immediately. Body heat loss accelerates with wind and wetness. Limiting your exposure to these conditions will lessen your probability of experiencing hypothermia.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of hypothermia to protect not only yourself, but the people you work with as well. Be aware that hypothermia begins with feelings of chill, tiredness and irritability. As hypothermia progresses, the victim will begin shivering violently and it will impair his or her motor skills and thinking skills. Without treatment, the victim is in the most danger when shivering stops—a sure sign that he or she is close to death.

As soon as the victim shows signs of hypothermia, seek medical assistance. To prevent the progression of hypothermia, take the victim indoors immediately, remove all wet clothing and place dry clothing or blankets on the person. Slowly raise the victim’s body temperature back to normal levels. Raising the body temperature too quickly will cause shock, which also can lead to death.

Frostbite is another injury common to snowfighters. During frostbite, skin is exposed to low temperatures and is in danger of freezing. Air temperature and length of exposure determines the extent of the damage frostbite causes. The initial signs of frostbite are pain and numbness. Skin will turn gray or white as frostbite progresses to severe stages. Fingers, toes, arms and legs may also become stiff. It is important to be aware of this danger because the victim does not realize further damage once numbness sets in. Because your extremities are the most susceptible (toes, fingers, cheeks, ears and nose), make sure skin is covered and gloves, socks and shoes are kept dry. Always keep in mind that wind and water progress the dangers of cold weather to your body and to your life.

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© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

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