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Winter Hazards - from slips and falls to carbon monoxide poisoning to snow throwers

January 04, 2016

Every season has its own unique set of safety hazards, and the winter months are no exception.

“Every year more than 150 people in the United States die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, while some 6,000 people are injured using snow throwers,” said John Murray, safety director, Safety and Environmental Affairs, Baystate Health.

CO detectors

While it is known that smoke alarms save lives and that numerous advertising and promotional campaigns have stressed their importance, Murray noted it is equally important to outfit your home with carbon monoxide (CO) detectors.

CO is found in fumes produced any time you burn fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, backup generators, or furnaces. CO can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.

“Installing a carbon monoxide detector outside every sleeping area and on every level of your home will alert you to the deadly, odorless, colorless gas known as carbon monoxide, which we call the ‘silent killer.’ Regular battery checks are also important,” he added.

Symptoms of CO poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue. More severe symptoms resulting from very high levels of CO poisoning include confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, and loss of consciousness.

The Western Mass. Safe Kids Coalition headquartered at Baystate Children’s Hospital offers the following additional tips to protect you against CO poisoning:

  • Never use a stove for heating.
  • Do not use a grill, generator or camping stove inside your home, garage or near a window.
  • Never leave a car, SUV, or motorcycle engine running inside a garage, even if the garage door is open.
  • Place CO alarms at least 15 feet away from every fuel-burning appliance to reduce the number of nuisance alarms.

Snow throwers

“When the snow piles up and snow throwers come out of the garage, extra caution must be taken when using this potentially dangerous piece of equipment. In addition to your own safety, never leave a snow thrower running unattended, especially if children are nearby, and do not let younger people operate the machine,” said Murray.

“With each winter storm, we unfortunately see many devastating hand and finger injuries from snow blower accidents,” said Dr. Pranay Parikh of Baystate Hand & Wrist Surgery.

According to the Baystate Medical Center plastic surgeon, 10 percent of those injuries involve amputation of the hand or fingers, and most often occur when users attempt to clear a clogged auger or exit chute with their hands. Other injuries can include broken bones, bruises, sprains, as well as severe cuts.

“One of the most common misconceptions is that the spinning blade or auger located at the intake end of the snow blower poses the greatest hazard. While this is true, most snow blower injuries occur at the exit chute, where the impeller spins rapidly to propel snow away from the area being cleared. When the exit chute is clogged, there is torque and energy loaded in the impeller blades, just like a wound-up spring. When the chute is cleared, the impeller blades will spin, releasing that energy, and forcefully striking anything near their path," said Dr. Parikh, who noted injuries from snow blower accidents are devastating in terms of suffering, recovering time, and medical costs.

To prevent serious hand injuries when using your snow blower, the American Society for Surgery of the Hand and Dr. Parikh recommend the following safety tips if your snow blower jams:

  • Turn the snow blower OFF.
  • Disengage the clutch.
  • Wait five seconds after shutting off to allow impeller blades to stop rotating.
  • ALWAYS use the snow blower’s attached clearing tool, or a broom handle to clear impacted snow, which must be strong enough to avoid breakage or eye injuries can result from flying fragments.
  • NEVER put your hand near chute or around blades.
  • Keep all shields in place and DO NOT REMOVE safety devices on machine.
  • Keep hands and feet away from moving parts.

Slips on snow and ice

Along with the snowy and icy weather conditions of wintertime comes the risk of slips and falls outdoors on black ice, as well as indoor.

“Slips and falls on snow-covered and icy walkways can result in a variety of injuries from broken bones to fractures to lacerations. Some of these injuries can be quite serious resulting in spinal and traumatic brain injuries,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair, Emergency Medicine, who noted the elderly are especially vulnerable to slips and falls, especially in the winter weather.

To avoid slipping on ice and snow, Murray recommends buying yourself a pair of shoes or boots with good traction (rubber tread) or use ice cleats available at many retail stores, and taking shorter steps than usual to maintain your center of balance, as well as walking slowly on icy ground. Remember to always remove your boots or shoes immediately upon entering the house, since snow and ice on the floor will melt and cause slippery conditions.

“If you are elderly or you cannot do it yourself because of a medical condition, make sure you have someone to clear all walking surfaces of snow and ice, and to treat them with deicer before going outdoors,” said Murray.