Respond to Winter Storms and Prevent Claims

The Perfect Storm

Winter presents “the perfect storm”:  rain, sleet, snow, and ice, presenting challenges to buildings, properties, and people!  Too many businesses find themselves unprepared when normal winter weather suddenly turns extreme.  General Liability and Property claims tend to increase in winter months, presenting financial challenges to US businesses of all types.

Emergency Plans and Roof Snow Loads

Many emergency response plans fail to include winter emergencies  and  response procedures for excessive snow loads.  Do you know how much snow and ice is safe for your roof?  You need to understand your roof’s maximum safe snow depth based on its load capacity as indicated in the building plans and specifications, or you may need to obtain an engineering analysis of the roof design.  Before snow begins to fall, inspect the roof structure for damage or deterioration, and repair or reinforce as needed.  Inspect all roof drains and downspouts and clean any accumulated debris from the roof to prevent clogging the drainage system.  Look for evidence of past water ponding and eliminate the causes.  Snow and ice will accumulate in these spots, potentially exceeding the safe snow load.

During the storm, regularly monitor snow depth of the roof, paying close attention to areas where snow tends to drift and accumulate;  remove snow from the roof before it reaches 50% of the safe maximum depth.  Clear snow and ice from storm drains and catch basins.  Make sure that snow is removed in layers uniformly across the roof to prevent unbalanced loads that might cause a collapse, and avoid piling snow on the roof.  Remember to use care with snow removal equipment, such as shovels, snow blowers, etc.  to avoid damage to the roof cover.  It’s not necessary to remove snow all the way down to the roof surface as long as melting snow and water can freely drain.  Keep employee safety in mind;  don’t send employees to the roof once the snow load approaches the load capacity.

Treating Snow and Ice – Safety First!

Identify essential personnel to respond to snow and ice, and assign specific responsibilities.  Make sure they are provided the personal protective equipment they  need to protect themselves from the cold, including parkas, high visibility vests, gloves, boots, protective eyewear, and hearing protection. 

Don’t assume employees know how to use a snow blower – it’s very important that they don’t insert their fingers or hands in the apparatus to clear jams from the blower.  Remind them of the proper procedure and provide broom handles for this purpose.

One size shovel does not fit all!  You should provide a variety of ergonomically designed shovels for employee use.  Purchase ice breakers like that pictured at right to break up thick ice.

Safe Shoveling

Shoveling can be a strenuous activity on its own, but it’s particularly dangerous in cold temperatures as cold weather can be taxing on the body and can create the potential for exhaustion, dehydration, back injuries, and/or heart attacks.  Remind employees to:

If at any time employees experience pain or chest discomfort, they should stop and seek immediate medical attention.

Treat Parking Lots, Sidewalks, and Stairs

Many businesses focus on sidewalks, leaving the parking lots as a lower priority.  All walking surfaces could impact visitors as well as employees.   Plan to remove snow before business opens and during the day to prevent accumulation.  Purchase the type of ice melt best suited to your needs. 

Purchase and install walk-off mats;  ten to twelve feet of matting is recommended to remove debris from shoes.  And don’t forget to have a supply of replacement mats to replace saturated mats.

Consumer Reports analyzed a number of available ice melts last year, evaluating widely available ice melts: calcium chloride, calcium magnesium acetate, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium chloride (rock salt), and urea (carbonyl diamide). Home centers, hardware stores, supermarkets, and other retailers carry some or all of these ice melts, and you’ll also find them at specialty and online.  View the Consumer Report’s analysis

Fill plastic bins with ice melt, put the bins on dollies, and place them in convenient places (near all outside entrances, for example).  Identify preferred walkways near parking lots and place bins there as well.  If ice melt isn’t convenient to employees, it may be overlooked.  Direct guests and employees toward designated walking paths, based on high volume entrances.  Continuously review these, looking for footprints to determine if additional paths are needed.

Pre-apply deicing chemicals before a storm, followed by snow/ice removal during and after the storm.  Use plenty of deicing materials, as “barely enough” could leave patches of ice.   Store unused deicer in an airtight container or heavy-duty trash can out of reach of children and pets.

Plan and execute daytime and nighttime shoveling and salting.  Check the sidewalk and parking surfaces regularly.  For parking areas, this could be time-consuming, but worth the effort.  Aim for evaporation.  If the water can drain and there is full sun, or even some decent wind, the water and ice will evaporate.  Dry pavement is a clear indication there is no ice.

Use a friction additive.  Sand is popular because it’s cheap.  Use a lot of it.  It may get messy, but this can be cleaned up after the snow and ice event.

Check and treat surfaces every morning, esp. around snow piles where melting may have created new problem areas.  Reevaluate during the day and retreat as needed.  Remember that a clean-looking surface is only safe it it’s dry.  A wet surface may contain ice or turn to ice in the shade or overnight.  Check bins frequently and ensure you have a supply of ice melt.

Outdoor stairways must be included in ice and snow treatment operations.  Inspect and repair or replace broken stairs and loose railings on steps.  Make sure lighting is operational.  Make sure railings are tight, since in bad weather customers and employees alike will most likely apply more force than usual when using them.

Document Your Snow and Ice Removal Activities

Make sure employees and contractors complete a snow removal log, such as the one pictured here.  This could be important to the defense of General Liability claims.

Identify contractors in advance.  Even if you perform your own snow removal, identify a contractor to serve as your back-up in the event employees are sick or equipment is insufficient or damaged.  Obtain Certificates of Insurance with limits specified by your carrier.  Make sure you identify, in advance, where snow should be piled.  If it is to be removed, make sure that is known.  Set expectations as to timeliness of your contractor.  Is he to show up after 2” of snowfall, within 2 hours, for example.  During the event, monitor the timeliness of contractors.  Are they on-site within the agreed-upon time?  Are they on-site when snowfall exceeds the agreed-upon amount (such as 2 inches)? Are they completing the snow removal log as required?  Are they doing a thorough job?

Life Safety Always Matters!

We are often so concerned about clearing walking paths and parking lots that we may not pay attention to emergency exits.  Make sure that areas around emergency exits are clear.  Egress includes access to, through, and away from exit doors.  We have to leave room for employees, guests, and tenants to exit the building safely.  Also, uncover fire hydrants and make sure to keep handicap spaces clear.  Make sure you instruct contractors and employees alike.

Guest, Tenant Injuries

So despite all of your efforts, a guest or tenant incurs an injury.  How you respond can set the tone for the resolution of the claim.  Of utmost importance is caring for the injured guest, above all else.  Make sure you stay with them.  Call 911 and allow the medical personnel to do their thing.  Be very cautious about moving the injured party.  If the guest or tenant fell, leave them on the floor, making them as comfortable as possible.  You may cautiously assist them to a sitting position, at the floor, but do not assist them to get up.  While there are Good Samaritan laws in place, these vary from state to state.  In most cases, words like “good faith effort” and “reasonable and prudent” are used to describe permissible interventions under the law.  Err on the side of caution here, unless you are a trained, certified EMT. 

While waiting for medical personnel, try to glean as much information as you can from the victim.  Of course, you’ll have to use your best judgment with respect to the injured party’s condition.  If the party was alone, ask if there’s someone you can call.  Secure the area if necessary to prevent others from exposure to the hazard that led to the incident.  Take note of all conditions at the time of the incident…for example, was the floor wet?  Why?  From cleaning or from weather?  Were mats in place at the door?  Were they flat?  Were 10-12 feet of mat provided?  Were there cords on the floor?  Any unusual conditions? 

It’s acceptable and recommended to take a photo of the area, but NEVER include the guest nor their injury in any photo.  Never express judgments as to the validity of the claim nor the extent of the injury.  Leave that to the medical providers and your insurance carrier.

Plan and Execute

A plan is only as good as its implementation.  Make sure you provide employee training so that everyone understands their responsibilities under the plan.  Planning and preparation is key to weathering whatever winter brings us.