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Stay Safe, Stay Warm This Winter

12-05-2019

Winter is here. As the temperatures continue to drop, it’s best to be prepared for all the good and bad that winter throws your way. While winter weather can be peaceful and beautiful, it can also be unexpected and tragic if you or a loved one experiences a weather-related injury. Consider these winter-safety checklists before the first winter storm hits.

How to Prepare for a Winter Storm

Winter storms are dangerous. To keep yourself and your loved ones safe, prepare well in advance, before a storm hits. Creating a communication and emergency disaster plan and keeping a few safety tips in mind can help your family prepare ahead of time.

  • To weatherproof your home:
    • Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows.
    • Cutaway tree branches that could fall on your home or car during a snow or ice storm.
    • Have your chimney or flue inspected annually.
    • Install a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector and check to make sure the batteries are working properly.
    • Install storm or thermal-pane windows.
    • Insulate walls, attics, and water lines that run along exterior walls, as needed.
    • Make sure your furnace system and vents are functioning correctly.
    • Repair roof leaks.
  • Before driving or using your car:
    • Always check the weather forecast along your route and before driving, especially for long-distance road trips during winter.
    • Keep a bundle of cold-weather gear in your car, in case of bad weather, and the unlikely event you end up stranded. This should include blankets, extra food and water, warm clothing, a flashlight, a glass scraper, an emergency kit, and more.
    • Keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times, in case of traffic or stopping.
    • Make sure the heater, defroster, brakes, emergency flashers, oil, and battery are all working.
    • Make sure your tires are properly inflated and have plenty of tread before the first snow.
    • Never warm up a vehicle in an enclosed area, like a garage.
    • Replace windshield wiper fluid with a winterproof mixture.
  • Before a winter storm hits:
    • Bring your pets indoors and keep them warm. Make sure they have access to clean, unfrozen water.
    • Listen to weather forecasts, check your emergency supplies, and prepare in advance, if possible.
    • Review your communication and emergency disaster plan with your family.

How to Stay Safe During Winter Weather

Cold temperatures, power outages, loss of communication services, and icy roads make venturing out and even staying in during winter storms risky. To reduce hazards, consider these tips.

  • If indoors:
    • Avoid using extension cords to plug in space heaters.
    • Conserve heat by keeping doors and windows closed, closing off unused rooms, stuffing towels or rags in cracks under doors, and closing drapes or covering windows with blankets at night.
    • Do not leave children unattended near heating sources.
    • Eat well-balanced meals to help you stay warmer and avoid alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, which make your body lose heat faster.
    • Heat your home safely. Do not use the stove for heat, use electric space heaters with automatic shut-off switches, and use fireplaces, wood stoves, and other combustion heaters only if they’re adequately vented.
    • If the power goes out, use extra blankets, sleeping bags, and winter coats to stay warm. Keep babies and older adults, who are most susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite, warm. Never use blankets or pillows on young babies in cribs—instead, dress them in footed pajamas, one-piece wearable blankets, or sleep sacks.
    • In case the water pipes in your home freeze, rupture, or break, keep a supply of water on hand.
    • Keep heat sources like space heaters at least 3 feet away from drapes, furniture, and bedding—and never cover them up.
    • Light your home safely if the power goes out—opt for battery-powered flashlights or lanterns rather than open, lit candles.
    • Never use generators, gas or charcoal grills, camp stoves, and similar devices inside the home, basement, garage, or near a window as fumes are deadly.
    • Use generators at least 20 feet from any window, door, or vent, and in a space where rain and snow will not affect them. Do not use these if they are wet.
    • Use only the type of fuel your heater is designed to use.
  • If outdoors:
    • Be safe during outdoor winter activities. Let friends and family know where you’re going, do not leave areas of your skin exposed, watch for signs of health problems, and be prepared to take emergency shelter during a storm.
    • Do not ignore shivering. It’s a sign that your body is losing heat, and it’s time to go inside.
    • Dress warmly and stay dry. Inner layers should include fabrics like wool, silk, or polypropylene that hold more body heat and don’t absorb moisture. Insulation layers help to retain heat by trapping air close to the body. Your outermost layer protects from wind, rain, and snow. It should be tightly woven and water and wind-resistant. (If you’re looking for layers to add to your winter wardrobe or have excess to donate, consider Select Seconds Thrift Shop, located at 8 E. Patrick St. near the Frederick Health Hospital in downtown Frederick).
    • Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia (if you don’t, continue reading).
    • Stay away from ice. Many cold-weather injuries result from falls on icy sidewalks, steps, and driveways. Use rock salt, sand, and other chemical de-icing compounds to reduce the risk of slipping.

How to Prevent Hypothermia and Frostbite While Outdoors

Hypothermia is the result of prolonged exposure to frigid temperatures. Lengthy exposures will use up the body’s stored energy and affect the brain, making it difficult to think clearly or move. Older adults, babies, people who remain outdoors for lengthy periods during cold weather, and people who drink alcohol or use drugs are at high risk for hypothermia.

Frostbite is a type of injury caused by freezing. It leads to a loss of feeling and color, usually in susceptible extremities like the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Extreme cases can lead to amputation.

To prevent hypothermia and frostbite, follow these tips:

  • When the weather is extremely cold, try to stay indoors.
  • If you must go outside, dress appropriately. This includes wearing a scarf or knit mask that covers your face and mouth, a hat, a water-resistant coat, gloves, several layers of loose-fitting clothes, and water-resistant boots. Make sure the areas most often affected by frostbite are covered completely.

If you or your loved one is experiencing any of these signs of hypothermia or frostbite, or their body temperature is below 95 degrees F, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Adults: Shivering, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness, white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, numbness
  • Babies: Bright red and cold skin, very low energy

If help is not immediately available, take action. Get them into a warm room or shelter. Remove any wet clothing. Warm them under dry layers of blankets and clothing, and place areas affected by frostbite in warm-to-touch water. Since frostbit skin may be numb, practice special caution when treating frostbite:

  • Do not use a fireplace, heat lamp, radiator, or stove for warming
  • Do not use a heating pad or electric blanket for warming
  • Unless necessary, do not walk on feet or toes with frostbite
  • Do not rub or massage areas with frostbite

How to Prevent Injuries While Shoveling Snow

Whether using a shovel or snow blower, snow removal can be difficult and dangerous if not done correctly. To prevent injuries, consider these tips:

  • Always wear multiple layers and choose gloves, shoes, and socks that are warm and water-repellant.
  • Avoid twisting your back. Instead, pivot your whole body.
  • Before you begin, stretch your arms, back, and legs to prevent injury.
  • Bend at the hips and push the chest out, then bend your knees and lift with your legs.
  • Face toward the object you intend to lift, with your shoulder and hips facing the object squarely to help you maintain balance.
  • For greatest stability, keep your hands 12 inches apart when holding the shovel for a strong, comfortable grip without straining.
  • If you have an existing heart condition or disability that could increase your risk of injury or death, ask a friend, family member, or neighbor for help removing the snow or ice. Do NOT do it alone.
    • Likewise, if you have an elderly friend, family member, or neighbor, and you are able, volunteer to remove their snow or ice to prevent injuries.
  • Start snow removal early, while the snow accumulation is light—don’t wait as this increases your risk of injury.
  • While using a snowblower:
    • Before you begin, know where the snow will go. Go with the wind if you can to prevent snow from blowing in your eyes, into the street, or into a neighbor’s spot that’s already cleared.
    • If the blower jams or clogs, turn it off immediately, waiting for the blades to stop spinning, before using a broom handle or other object to remove the packed snow.
    • If you need to refill during use, make sure to turn it off first.
    • Never let a child or inexperienced person operate a snowblower without proper supervision.

How to Drive Safely in Snowy or Icy Conditions

When in doubt, and especially if you can’t drive very well in bad weather, it’s best to avoid venturing out if you don’t have to. If you can, try to stay home. But, if you absolutely must drive in snowy or icy weather conditions, proceed with caution.

  • Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Don’t try to start moving again in a hurry and take your time to stop at stoplights and stop signs.
  • Avoid other distractions, such as drinking, eating, using mobile devices, or adjusting radio or vehicle controls, while driving.
  • Don’t power up hills. If you can, try to get inertia going before you reach the hill and let that carry you to the top. When you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed downhill slowly.
  • Don’t stop going up a hill—you’ll get stuck or, worse, slide backward.
  • If you can, don’t stop to prevent your car from getting stuck or spinning when you start again. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do so.
  • Keep space between you and other vehicles at all times—increase your following distance by about five to six seconds.
  • Know your brakes. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
  • Never use cruise control while driving on any slippery surface like ice or snow.
  • Stoplights and street signs may be missing, not visible, or not working, so treat all intersections as a four-way stop for extra precaution.
  • Wear your seatbelt at all times.

For more winter driving advice, read these tips from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

How to React If You Get Stranded During a Storm

If, by chance, you have to travel during a snow or ice storm and break down or become stranded, consider these tips for waiting out the bad weather in your car.

  • If possible, conserve fuel by only running the engine and heater long enough to remove the chill.
  • Make sure your exhaust pipe is not clogged with snow, ice, or mud. A blocked pipe can cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment of your vehicle while the engine is running.
  • Make your vehicle as visible as possible. Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna and keep your dome light on if possible.
  • Notify the authorities and your emergency contacts with your cell phone, if service is working.
  • Stay warm—bundle up with whatever you have on hand to insulate your body during the cold. Grab your pre-packed blankets and heavy clothing in case of an emergency.
  • Stay with your vehicle, as it provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to find you. Do not try to walk in a severe storm or lose sight of your vehicle.
  • While shoveling your car out of the snow, practice proper snow shoveling safety measures, and stop if you become tired.

In the event of a cold-weather injury or emergency, both the Frederick Health Urgent Care and Emergency Department are ready to help you. Not sure where to go? Learn more here and stay safe this winter!