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Winter Safety Tips: How to keep safe in the cold and avoid accidents

January 06, 2022
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Every season has its own unique set of safety hazards, and the winter months are no exception.

But the cold temperatures, snow, and ice aren’t the only things to prepare for. There are some dangers that can be found inside your home if you’re not careful.

Baystate Health experts give some advice for keeping safe this winter.

What happens to your body when it’s cold outside?

“Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk, and those who work outdoors, but anyone can be affected,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair of the Emergency Medicine  at Baystate Medical Center.

The most common cold-related problems resulting from prolonged exposure to the cold are hypothermia and frostbite. But cold weather can also lead to heart issues.

Hypothermia

Some symptoms of hypothermia in adults are:

  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Reduced breathing
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Extreme shivering

Infants with hypothermia may have bright red, cold skin and very low energy.

“What is concerning in the case of hypothermia is that your body has used up its stored energy resulting in low body temperature, which affects the brain and a person’s ability to think clearly. So someone may not realize what is happening to them or be able to do anything about it,” said Dr. Schmidt.

A body temperature below 95 degrees F requires emergency medical attention.

While waiting for emergency help to arrive or to stop your temperature from dropping to dangerous levels, begin warming immediately by getting indoors. Remove wet clothing.

Warm the center of the body first – chest, neck, head and groin area – using an electric blanket, if possible. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets. Warm beverages can also help increase body temperature.

Once the body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.

Frostbite

Symptoms of frostbite include numbness and a white cast to the skin in the affected area.

“The most susceptible body parts are fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the nose,” said Dr. Schmidt.

He suggests warming the frozen part to room temperature by immersing it in warm (not hot) water to avoid burns to the skin. Frozen tissue is fragile and can be damaged easily.

Also, avoid warming with high heat from radiators, fireplaces or stoves and avoid rubbing or breaking blisters.

If in doubt about possible frostbite, ask your doctor or call 9-1-1.

Heart Attacks

Heart attacks are more prevalent during the winter months, when cold weather can place a strain on your heart.

“What happens is that your arteries tend to tighten when you are out in the cold, your blood pressure goes up, and this can overload your heart. This could lead to a heart attack. If you have previously suffered a heart attack or have heart disease, you should avoid shoveling snow and other types of outdoor exertion, particularly if you are out of shape and haven’t been exercising regularly. Let someone else do it, like a nephew or neighbor. And, be sure to bundle up when going out into the cold,” said Dr. Quinn Pack, a preventive cardiologist in the Baystate Heart & Vascular Program.

How to prepare for winter

You want to make sure you and your neighbors are prepared for the cold.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) suggests coming up with a family emergency plan, so everyone’s on the same page when a snowstorm hits.

If there is bad weather, check on family, friends, and neighbors. Give special attention to the elderly, those who live alone, those with medical conditions, and those who may need additional assistance.

Make sure you’re ready before stepping outside

Dr. Schmidt has some tips for people who are planning on going out in the cold:

  • Dress in layers: It is better to be wearing three thin layers of clothing than one bulky outfit. Outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent.
  • Protect all areas of the body: Heat loss happens through the head, so wear a hat. Choose mittens over gloves when possible. Wear sturdy waterproof boots. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.
  • Avoid the wind and getting wet: Both promote heat loss from the body.
  • Avoid alcohol, certain medications, and smoking: They will diminish your blood flow in the cold.
  • Plan outdoor activities: Make sure you can take breaks inside to warm up.

Even with these precautions, limit outdoor time for your pets. Freezing temperatures are dangerous to animals as well as humans.

Prepare your car and home in advance

MEMA suggests everyone have a well-stocked home emergency kit that includes:

  • A flashlight
  • A sleeping bag or blanket
  • A portable radio
  • Extra batteries
  • A first aid kit
  • Bottled water
  • Non-perishable food

Winterize your car too.

Your car emergency kit should have:

  • Blankets
  • Extra clothing 
  • A flashlight with spare batteries
  • Waterproof matches (to melt snow for drinking water)
  • Non-perishable foods
  • A windshield scraper
  • A shovel
  • Sand
  • A towrope
  • Jumper cables

Also, keep the gas tank at least half-full.

Stay safe and avoid winter accidents

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

John Murray, safety director of Safety and Environmental Affairs at Baystate Health, says it is important to install carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in your home.

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 this deadly, odorless, colorless gas. It is called the ‘silent killer’ for good reason. Regular battery checks of smoke and CO detectors 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.

Protect yourself 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.

Accidents Involving Snow Blowers

“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 BMC 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.

Injuries from snow blower accidents are devastating in terms of suffering, recovering time, and medical costs.

If your snow blower jams, the American Society for Surgery of the Hand and Dr. Parikh suggest that you:

  • 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 and Falls 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. Schmidt.

He said 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 using ice cleats available at many retail stores
  • Taking shorter steps than usual to maintain your center of balance
  • 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.

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