On Thin Ice
January 3, 2012
My mother used what I think is an old southern phrase -- "all stoved up" -- to describe a myriad of sore, painful or aching bones and muscles resulting from overwork or an accident. My hope is you will protect yourself and prevent being all stoved up this winter because of a fall on the snow and ice that is surely on its way.
Although statistics vary among national recordkeeping agencies, it is accurate to say that thousands of Americans become victims of snow- and ice-related falls each year. These accidents result in days, months and even years of pain and agony among the U.S. workforce and, in some cases, permanent disability and death. We even experience these types of accidents among our federal working populations on and off Army installations. Each year, Soldiers and Civilians injure themselves by slipping on ice, resulting in lost workdays. Typical injuries related to these type falls include pelvis, arm, elbow and wrist fractures. Other common injuries include concussions, facial bone fractures and broken teeth.
It's easy to prevent these types of accidents with a little awareness and some precautions. One of the simplest safety measures you can take is wearing the proper shoes for the weather conditions. Common sense should tell us that smooth leather- or plastic-soled shoes are not conducive to walking safely over packed snow and ice. Instead, wear a nonslip rubber- or neoprene-soled shoe or boot that has grooves. Rubber overshoes or boots are fine if they have similar specifications. If you must wear street shoes to work, consider carrying them with you and changing when you get inside the building. The same logic applies to women with respect to heels.
Another thing to consider is the temperature of the soles. The heater in your car warms your shoes to a comfortable temperature. When you reach your snow-packed or icy parking place, human nature tells you to fling open the door and make a mad dash to the warmth inside. Here's what happens when you do this: The warm shoe sole hits the ice and immediately melts the surface, creating a thin pool of water between the surface and the shoe and setting up a hazardous condition. Instead, plant your feet firmly on the icy surface while still sitting in the car seat for a few moments until the shoe temperature cools down and doesn't pool water under your shoes. Maintain a good two-hand hold on the car door when you get out and establish firm footing before walking.
You should also dress for the occasion. Winter conditions call for more clothing. In addition to providing warmth, thick bulky layers will provide protection in case you fall. Consider a good cold weather hat, thick knit hat or ski hat for warmth and head protection. Gloves, scarves and earmuffs are also useful.
Fresh snow is usually easy to traverse without falling but conditions such as partial melting and packing of the snow can change the situation in short order. Freezing rain, sleet and wintery mix conditions can be particularly hazardous. Remember to treat walking surfaces that look wet or are shaded by trees or buildings as if they're still frozen, even if you have observed melting in other areas.
There are some simple and helpful techniques to remember when walking on packed snow and ice. Choose designated walkways, preferably walkways that have already been deiced. Now is not the time to be taking shortcuts across snow banks and negotiating untraveled areas where hidden obstacles may lurk under the snow and ice. In some cases, walkways may be extremely slippery from ice melting and refreezing. Therefore, the best option for traction and ease of travel could be the grassy area adjacent to the walkway.
Even our best efforts at preventing a fall can fail, so I would like to mention a few techniques you can use to help reduce the risk of injury if you do take a spill. Try to relax the muscles in your body when you fall. If you're falling forward, put your arms in front of your face and turn your head left or right. If you're falling backward, tuck your chin into your chest to minimize the whiplash effect on your neck and the back of the head. If possible, put your hands behind your head. If you fall sideways, allow your upper arm to take the impact. I've had some success in using my hands to break a fall, but others have sprained or broken fingers, wrists and elbows in doing this. I normally don't recommend using the hands and arms for anything other than protecting the face and head during a fall, especially for those of us who may be a little older and carry a little more bodyweight than we should.
Hopefully, you will find something that I have mentioned useful for this and future winters to help keep you safe when the skies open up to freezing rain, sleet, snow or the wintery mix.