If current weather cycles are anything to go by, this winter is going to be a cold one. Scientists at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center are predicting an unprecedented triple-dip La Nina weather system, which will lead to further below average temperatures and above average rainfall. This is especially the case in northern states. What this means is there will be a higher risk of snow this winter – and everything that comes with it. For commercial property managers, snow brings a wide range of risks with it, nodding into the matters of accessibility, safety, and liability – all of which need to be considered, both in terms of managing snow and ice and safely arranging for its removal. Understanding just how cold weather conditions can impact business is the important first step.
Hazards of cold weather
What do snow and ice mean for a business? There can be benefits for some businesses, especially those with a strong Christmas-oriented side. However, there can be plenty of negatives, including:
- Loss of business due to inaccessibility from snow and ice blocking routes to and from commercial premises.
- Increased employee sick days, either from trips and falls on snow and ice or from injuries and illness when clearing snow.
- Risk of hazards and liability from trips and falls from visiting customers.
What seems like a simple weather system can soon turn into a nightmare scenario. Businesses located in the coldest and snowiest of states are well acquainted with this risk. Still, as extreme weather becomes more widespread, businesses across the country must start to get savvy about the risks.
For those financially minded business owners, the true cost of snow and ice is represented in cold, hard figures. According to Time magazine research, a single snow day caused by a snow storm will cost a city up to $4.5 million in revenue. Even if the entire city isn’t impacted, those businesses that don’t make the effort to keep themselves open and accessible will pay the price. However, safety is the first and most important factor, and there is clear evidence to show that avoiding adherence to safety procedures is folly.
The big numbers
Snow and ice cause a high rate of injury every year in the USA. According to Rothman Orthopaedics, these are often fatal. Their statistics found that:
- Over 1 million Americans are injured every winter from falls on ice and snow.
- Seventeen thousand of these injuries result in fatality.
- Some of the most common injuries include broken bones, herniated spinal discs and concussions.
The risk factor is enhanced significantly when taking into account age and disability. However, the statistics are clear – there is a huge risk associated with snow and ice, and that’s true whether it’s on pathways or on softer ground. You cannot take a risk as a business, whether that be from causing employee and customer injury or from taking on greater liability.
Creating a safe environment for your employees is also very important. Getting into work during what could be a snow or ice day is difficult enough as it is – having a safe place to get into that minimizes the risk of injury is a bare minimum. Furthermore, this reduces the likelihood that sick days will be accrued – sick days that you may be liable for.
OSHA on the way?
Enforcement does happen. A recent fact sheet produced by OSHA highlighted some of the key risks of leaving snow and ice on the property, and some of the findings were startling. Among the case studies cited were:
- A man clearing snow from a roof lost his balance and hit his head on loose construction materials improperly stored beneath the roof.
- Individuals injured by tools used to clear snow, like snow blowers.
- Frostbite and hypothermia from extended exposure to ice and cold winds.
- Collapses and tip-overs of snow piles or when using aerial lifts.
The risks posed to workers are many and increase exponentially as snow removal advances from the pathways and onto the roof estates of commercial properties. Enforcement is rigorous and, in many cases, necessary.
Determining liability is important, and there is a complex field of law that businesses must consider when it comes to the upkeep of their premises. Snow and ice come into this, and while laws vary from state to state, there is a general consensus. While there is variance by state, a look at Pennsylvania law can be instructive.
According to HG.org law resources, the principle used by the courts is the “hills and ridge” measure, in addition to the use of “reasonable time”. The former dictates that if the uneven ground has been created by snow or ice fall, then the business must put up a warning, or clear away the obstacle, lest they be found legally liable for the injury. When considering the “reasonable” measure, Philadelphia law dictates that 24 hours is the minimum reasonable period in which a business can be expected to take action.
Similar principles can be applied to employee rights. While states have different methods of enforcement, as NOLO.com highlights, many states have similar workers’ rights that put the burden of liability on the employer if they have not made their workplace safe. Creating a safe working environment is, therefore, an ethical and moral choice but also a sound financial one. Also, consider the matter of accessibility and whether your actions will unintentionally prejudice your business against people living with a disability.
Considering full accessibility
Where the roads remain open, and transit is possible, you need to keep your business open. Closing the doors will ensure that you only lose money (digital presence notwithstanding), and so it is essential that you make the business accessible. However, simply clearing away the snow might not be the only step you need to take. Consider, for instance, the needs of people living with disabilities.
According to Forbes, winter already disproportionately impacts people living with a disability. Accessibility requirements of all varieties – whether related to mobility, eyesight, auditory issues or something else – are left by the wayside in winter. The patchwork protections offered by the US courts and state and county authorities are simply not fit for purpose. It is entirely possible that businesses are made completely inaccessible to people living with a disability. This is, of course, a poor business choice – according to the CDC, there are 61 million adults living with disability in the USA; that’s a huge potential market to cut off.
There are specific provisions in the Americans with Disability Act. The Northeast ADA Center highlights 28 CFR §35.133, which defines that a reasonable effort must be made to remove snow and ice. Enforcement varies from state to state; in New York, a $100 fine can be made for dumping snow on accessible parking spaces, for instance. Checking local laws is essential and can be instructive.
Creating real access
With that in mind, it’s important to take several different steps in keeping commercial paths and gardens clear of snow and ice. Keep these key principles in mind when undertaking work. They will help any manager to keep the end goal of an accessible and safe premises in mind:
- Clear early in the day – this stops ice and snow from getting compacted or water slicks turning to black ice.
- Take extra care to clear verges and edges – creating maximum footfall space.
- Brush in salt, sand or grit instead of water, which will just freeze.
- Be mindful not to spread salt, sand or grit onto plants, where they’ll cause long term harm.
The crucial factor is avoiding black ice. As annoying as snow and white ice, it is nevertheless visible and will be a clear indicator that the path isn’t accessible. On the other hand, black ice is dangerous to people of any age and with any disability and must be avoided at all costs. Most black ice can be avoided by not adding further water to the frozen area and by ensuring any runoff is sent to drains or cleared into greenery.
Also, consider parking spaces and parking lot walkways. These are often neglected but are an essential part of the business given the reliance of America on cars. It can be tempting to leave the bulk of the parking spot when it comes to maintenance, but remember that people will be stepping out onto it, and cars have all the ability to slide if they are on black ice. Making it safe means giving the same care that you do to pathways.
Considering rooftop snow
Some businesses will have a roof top estate that requires snow removal to make it safe. This is an important part of the story – snow drifts, or ice, can fall from the property, potentially causing a fresh mess that needs to be cleared up and, in the worst case, injuring employees or customers passing by. However, roof removal is inherently risky.
Having a clear plan of the property and any risks is an essential first step. Are there any verges on the roof that poses a fall hazard or any openings that could cause injury? Are there likely to be catch points behind which heavy snow can catch and create a further risk? Are there sufficient weight-bearing points on the roof for ladders to go up? When in doubt, don’t ask employees to head up and look for professionals.
Snow removal is aided to a great degree through the use of mechanized devices such as snow blowers and miniaturized plows. These require specialist training and oversight from local regulators. Furthermore, consider the size of your commercial estate and whether you will truly benefit from such devices – if it can be done with hard work, a shovel and a spade, you’re best off keeping it simple.
Managing greenery with frost
Another issue that snow and frost can bring is damage to the green spaces within your commercial area. As the BBC rightly notes, frost can be extremely damaging to plants, especially those that are non-native to the area. Plants brought from different climates, and planted in different soils, are likely to die in the winter seasons.
This can create a risk in itself when the snow clears. Dead plants can accumulate frost and be unsafe to walk on especially grass – compressed blades of grass that are frosted over will often feel like an all-natural slip and slide. To help combat this, consider undertaking some lawn care during the winter months, as recommended by Online Turf:
- Continue to aerate the lawn, especially in damp and hard areas – this will allow runoff and ensure frost thaws quickly.
- Continue mowing even in winter – keeping blade length short will reduce health and safety risks.
- Apply seed to patches, and rake away any fallen leaves.
Ticking these off will keep lawns and green areas looking healthy once the frost and ice clear, and will make sure they’re healthy for walking on in between. That helps your customers, helps your business, and ensures you’re giving everybody on the premises their rightful safe environment.
Snow and ice is going to be a bigger problem for businesses in the 22-23 winter season. More states will be impacted and states already dealing with the cold will endure even more extreme weather patterns. Businesses have to adapt to survive.
Keeping your business clear of snow and ice in a reasonable time is an essential part of meeting regulatory requirements. There is enforcement, it is timely, and it will pursue any lack of effort in this regard. However, even putting aside enforcement, you will be doing a good deed by making the business completely accessible. People living with disabilities are unfairly impacted by the cold, and employees are forced to take sick days when they are injured at work. Both groups deserve fairness stemming from a proactive snow management policy, which, if executed safely, will bring benefits to all areas of the business.