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OSHA requires employers to protect workers from hazards, including those presented by the bitter cold. Employers typically do a great job for employees in the workplace, but what about those that travel for work and are therefore more susceptible to winter’s worst weather?

The once-in-a-generation Buffalo, NY, storm that roared in last month with great ferocity, left many drivers and pedestrians stranded and without any room for human error. Unfortunately for at least 37 people, the consequence of their decisions — such as whether to stay or leave a car, charge a phone, or take a blanket — proved catastrophic.

According to emergency professionals, seventeen people were found deceased outside, nine were discovered in homes without heat, four were located in vehicles, four succumbed to cardiac events while shoveling or snow blowing, and three died while waiting for delayed emergency medical services. Officials believe the death toll is likely to climb as more cars are pulled from snow drifts.

Harrowing examples of Buffalo’s blizzard blight

A 26-year-old man, dressed only in a thin track suit, sat in his Toyota RAV4 with a dwindling supply of gas in his tank. He called a friend to express his fear of freezing if the fuel ran out. He could choose to wait for help or try to get to shelter. After choosing to seek shelter and leaving his vehicle, he was found several hours later barely breathing and face down in the snow. Sadly, he was pronounced dead only a few hours later.

A 22-year-old woman, driving home in a Nissan Altima from her job as a nursing home assistant, got stuck in the snow. Wearing only light hospital scrubs and Crocs with no other warm clothing, she was unable to protect herself from the blistering cold.

A 52-year-old woman left her home around 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, telling her daughter she would be right back. She was found by a passerby, her body frozen and covered in snow.

A 63-year-old with a heart condition and who relied on an electrically-powered oxygen machine died trying to get to a location with power.

A 27-year-old died from carbon monoxide poisoning after heavy snow choked the external furnace of his residence. This could easily happen in a vehicle as well.

A 73-year-old Polish immigrant died after getting stuck in the snow in her vehicle. It was later stated that she struggled with English and may not have understood the winter storm warnings.

What to know before you go

Emergency services will advise that under severe blizzards and cold weather, a healthy, moderately fit adult in typical winter gear may have 20 or 30 minutes before losing the ability to keep moving. It takes very little time for them to become disoriented or lost; the ability to make clear, rational decisions can degrade quickly in such extreme conditions.

Cold-weather watches and warnings may be issued for winter storms, wind chill, blizzard, or freezing rain. The difference between the two are:

A WATCH is issued when dangerous weather is in the forecast and has the potential to affect life or property. Supervisors should ensure workers prepare for the expected weather and take appropriate action.

A WARNING is issued when severe weather has been spotted and is occurring, posing an immediate threat to life or property. Supervisors should ensure workers immediately execute appropriate safety protocols.

Cold weather travel preparation includes:

  • Understanding weather warnings and how to react.
  • If possible, staying indoors and avoiding travel during severe winter weather.
  • Dressing appropriately, and in layers, despite the length of anticipated time spent in the elements.
  • Ensuring phones have a full charge before leaving. If possible, carry a solar-powered or similar charger.
  • Carrying additional safety supplies at all times: blankets, additional warm clothing, water, non-perishable snacks, flashlight, road flares, bag of salt or kitty litter, additional fuel, and a portable shovel.
  • Having indoor-approved emergency heating equipment and appropriate fuel on hand in case of power outages. IMPORTANT: Due to risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, gas, kerosene, or propane heaters should not be used indoors.
  • For hunkering down at home, ensure heaters and furnaces are updated, with clean filters, and thermostats are working. Install a carbon monoxide detector and verify chimneys are clean. Having a backup generator is essential for persons with medical conditions who rely on electricity.

Keys to remember

Employers and employees must take weather warnings seriously and act accordingly. Cold weather can appear without warning — and it can be fatal.