Workplace Safety on Wintry Days | DCR Workforce Blog

Workplace Safety on Wintry Days

North America faced the lowest temperatures in decades, affecting 190 million people. Some parts of the Midwest hit -14F, with Hell, Michigan freezing over at -1F while Embarrass in Minnesota recorded temperatures which proved it was colder than on Mars. The states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York experienced record-breaking low temperatures.

weatherMany unpleasant situations were faced by individuals, companies and even school children across the country as a consequence of the bad weather conditions across the country; with temperatures reaching unprecedented lows and cities across the country facing impassable roads that were buried under snow which they were unequipped to remove and water supplies frozen inside the pipes.

The Polar Vortex is being blamed for a lot of things like the missed office hours and the consequent effect on productivity; more than 49000 canceled flights; the decline in manufacturing and retail sales; a $35 billion increase in heating bills; and lower revenues from agriculture. As life goes on, and spring comes in, everyone hopes these setbacks will be forgotten as activities pick up and projects are attacked with renewed zeal.

 But as long as winter lasts, employers will be on a metaphorical slippery ground if they allow the possibility of their employees facing slippery conditions at the workplace. , Medical centers across the country are reporting spikes in the number of weather-related visits to the emergency room. Falling on untreated walkways or skidding on improperly plowed parking lots will directly translate into litigation and increases in worker’s compensation costs.

  • An injury on the employer’s premises or zone of employment (on the sidewalk, in the parking lot or on steps of the building) will allow a worker’s claim for compensation against the employer. This would apply even if the employee was on the way to work and yet to clock in, or leaving the workplace after clocking out.
  • When the employer’s business is one of several businesses in a complex, the degree of control exercised by the employer over the maintenance of the specific area where the slippery conditions led to the injury is also taken into consideration.  However, when it comes to lawsuits the attorney for injured party will most likely name the employer and facilities manager as co-defendants.  Regardless of the outcome, the process will be a costly and time-consuming one for the employer.
  • Employees who travel to a specific work location are not the only ones protected from injuries. Workers who do not have a fixed place of employment are also protected from injuries, in the course of their employment; as the hazardous situation was encountered solely on account of the employment.
  • As more employees are working from home, the scope of workplace injuries has now expanded to the worker’s home; protecting the telecommuters. The claim will be decided based upon how the injury occurred and whether it occurred in the course of the employment of the worker.

While slips and falls during winter are just one aspect of possible causes of workplace injuries, the nature of work and the possibility of injury must be evaluated by employers on a case by case basis as they schedule workers and their daily tasks. Use of protective equipment is also important, while providing sufficient breaks and monitoring the workers for symptoms of cold stress and other symptoms.

Both the National Labor and Employment Act (NLRA) and The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) give employees the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to be free from retaliation from employers, if they complain.

  • The NLRA prohibits action against workers who refuse to work when: (1) The worker acted in good faith, honestly believing that it would be dangerous to work under current conditions; (2) the refusal involved more than one worker; and (3) the refusal cannot have been part of a work stoppage designed to get around a “no strike” clause in a union contract.
  • OSHA prohibits the disciplining or firing of employees who refuse to drive a commercial motor vehicle during hazardous winter weather conditions.  Violators could end up paying for the worker’s reinstatement (while expunging his or her work record), back pay, attorney fees, legal costs and other damages. The NLRA is equally stringent against employers who retaliate.
  • Removal of accumulated snow on rooftops, skylight covers etc., is also required to protect the worker against injury and are the responsibility of the employer.
  • Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) when businesses close on account of bad weather, the employer is only required to pay the non-exempt employee for the time actually spent working – unless the state has a ‘report-in’ law which mandates payment to a worker who shows up to work. Exempt employees will have to be paid, even if the office is closed.

It is not possible to visualize the various ways in which an employer could imperil a worker’s safety, but in all cases employers had better evaluate possible hazards and adopt measures to protect their workers, especially in these unprecedented weather conditions, which many have never experienced before.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.