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Four Steps to Stay Safe (and Operational) During Severe Winter Weather Events

Major winter and ice storms, much like the polar vortex surge that impacted a majority of the U.S. this past February, can cause great economic impacts and business disruptions, yet many businesses don’t have plans in place to mitigate their impacts. As the days get shorter, planning for severe winter weather should be a top priority for environmental health and safety decision makers.

The impacts from cold weather events will vary greatly depending on where your business is located and how frequently you experience below freezing temperatures. Whether you begin to see negative effects at 32°F or 10°F, extreme temperatures create operational difficulties, safety concerns and financial losses for businesses in the cold season.

Winter weather can also present difficulties in forecasting, not only because episodes of cold temperatures can cover large areas, but also because precipitation, and the form it takes, is very sensitive. Precipitation can take the form of rain, sleet, freezing rain or snow, and the conditions in which these form can create dangerous ice. All of these are dependent on temperature, which itself can fluctuate depending on the level of cloud cover, speed or direction of wind, and humidity in the atmosphere. This volatility in precipitation contributes to the uncertainty surrounding an upcoming cold front, making it hard to get advanced forecasts of the kind of precipitation to expect. Even though a major cold event can be identified seven to ten days in advance, it’s not until one or two days before impact that the track, timing, and strength of the cold front can be confirmed.

In anticipation of the upcoming cold season, businesses can develop a Winter Weather Response Plan that outlines what areas of a business are at risk from individual weather elements. Here are four steps to prepare for the winter ahead and safely mitigate the operational impacts of severe winter events.

#1 Obtain an Appropriate Temperature Forecast

Your definition of “extreme temperatures” will vary depending on the vulnerabilities of your organization. Accurate weather intelligence is critical in know what actions to take in response to severe cold events. Having timely access to this information is essential for preparedness. Temperature forecasts should advise on:

  • How cold it will get,
  • How long it will last,
  • How soon will the front arrive,
  • How certain is the forecast,
  • How widespread the event will be, and
  • Other weather elements to expect, such as winds and precipitation (snow, ice, sleet).

Once the weather event parameters are known, the response team can start the actions of their response plan.

#2 Know Your Business and Its Weather Sensitivities

In preparing for a potentially impactful winter weather event, the key areas most businesses will need to consider will likely fall within three main categories: human safety, facility limitations, and transportation and utility restrictions. The level of impact and response within these areas varies from business to business, which is why it is imperative to know the specific vulnerabilities present within your organization.

- Employee safety is always number one.

It’s essential for a business to ensure safe working conditions for employees in all professional environments. In winter this means providing a heated workspace. When monitoring the temperature, remember wind chill and elevated work sites can be colder than the thermometer might read. If staff are required to work outside, a heated break space should be provided where employees can warm up when needed. It also includes providing access to sufficient and adequate PPE – cold stress can cause hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot, all of which can having long-term effects. Outdoor work areas have the additional risk of slipping and falling in snow or ice, so these areas must be properly assessed before and immediately following any inclement weather. To combat dangerous environments, temporary walkways and salt can be used to form stable surfaces for outdoor workers.

- How will cold weather impact your facilities?

Preventing operational downtime requires the infrastructure of a business to remain functional in a freeze. Things to consider include:

  • Is there temperature-sensitive equipment, machinery, technology or processes that will fail or become dangerous to use below a certain temperature?
  • How long can the facility withstand certain temperatures? (2 hours at 20°F might not have the same impacts as 24 hours at 32°F.)
  • Are there structural weaknesses to buildings that may be impacted by heavy snow or strong winds?
  • Are there pipes that might freeze shut?

Based on the answers to these questions, certain preparatory measures must be taken. This could include draining unused or unnecessary water lines, or protecting critical equipment with additional insulation or warming the area. Knowing your vulnerabilities is the first step to preparing for them, maintaining operations through an event, and knowing when it’s time to shut down or dial back.

- Consider supplier and utility limitations.

Many businesses rely on utility providers, suppliers, and contractors for daily functioning. Receiving and delivering goods and services can become risky if roads and regular routes are impacted by ice. Keep drivers informed of road conditions and have alternate routes ready for deliveries, if possible.

It is also a good idea to monitor for power outages. Most utility companies offer online tracking maps for current power outages. If your business service provider is able to track the probability of a power outage based on the weather conditions, you may be able to pre-position generators for emergency power.

Should road conditions make it too dangerous to travel, safety managers should have enough emergency supplies on-site to last through an event, and should update journey management protocols to prepare company vehicles, as employees could temporarily get stuck away from the main facilities.

#3 Develop an Action Plan Based on Operational Temperature Thresholds

Once the vulnerabilities have been identified, a comprehensive response plan can be developed, ideally for all business risks. The most effective weather response plans consider the forecasted weather conditions, the probability of the worst-case scenarios (i.e. lowest possible temperatures or highest wind speeds), the stages and timing of the developing weather, and the amount of time needed to safely execute any mitigation efforts. Responding to winter weather threats requires additional flexibility—reflected by an adaptable response plan that includes:

  • An Activator: a threat alert temperature or precipitation alert that rolls responses into action. The activator may need to consider the probability of the cold weather event. The chosen temperature alert will depend on the restrictions highlighted in step two above.
  • A Timeline Tool: to identify response plan actions and when they should be implemented. This should include alerts for the forecasted arrival of the front, severity of the storm, and probable impacts. The timeline should also review the duration of possible impending scenarios and provide options to cope with each. Safety managers would likely respond to a two-hour freeze differently than a ten-hour freeze, as each impacts a business differently. The goal for this timeline tool is to count down to the event’s impact, ensuring each preparedness action is implemented at the right time.
  • Seeking Meteorological Advice: meteorologists can monitor precise site locations and forecast the level of impact a business can expect from a weather threat. This forecast should tell you the expected type of precipitation and temperatures, which is critical information for your response. Guidance from a weather intelligence partner factors into the timeline tool, as that information should be obtained before managers and executives need to make decisions. These services can customize alerts for a business based on their specified temperature thresholds up to seven days in advance.

The timing of a cold front is crucial to the timing of a freeze, and the arrival of cold weather will influence when the coldest temperatures will be reached. There is also the possibility of several freeze and thaw patterns occurring throughout the event, which may need to be factored into a business’s coping plan.

#4 Practice the Plan

Until a procedure is set in motion, it is difficult to predict it’s shortfalls. Practicing a response plan will show employees what to expect in the event of severe winter weather. Each employee has the opportunity to go through the motions and fully understand their responsibilities in that situation, so they can be prepared for the real event. Drills can highlight unforeseen problems with facilities and transportation, or gaps in procedures. This is the opportunity to improve preparedness planning and ensure all members of a business are informed and ready to act.

For the upcoming winter season, through February 2022, forecasters are expecting a volatile weather pattern, with intense periods of arctic cold toward the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, increased storms along the Pacific Northwest, and enhanced snow fall in the northern states. Businesses will need to plan for intense cold snaps, snow accumulation, and variable forms of precipitation. Using the steps above, safety managers can prepare for the upcoming season and mitigate operational downtime for their businesses, ensuring people and places remain safe.

Don Shelly is the Vice President of Onshore Oil and Gas for StormGeo, the leading provider of global weather intelligence. When he isn’t helping businesses understand the nuances of preparing for severe weather events, Don is the host of two podcasts exploring historical events and their impacts on culture and society.

Published in Continuity Insights