Spring is a season most often associated with renewal, awakening, and rebirth. As the snow melts and temperatures rise, hibernating animals awaken, flowers bloom, and seedlings sprout. And while “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers,” the changing weather also brings certain hazards we should all be aware of. These are particularly relevant for workers in construction, the oil and gas industry, and transportation.
In many parts of the United States, spring weather is fairly tumultuous. We may see rain one day, snow the next, and then sleet that covers the roads and makes visibility nearly impossible. High winds and floods can be expected, and even tornadoes strike most often during May and June. For workers who spend most of their time outdoors or on the road, spring weather can present significant risks.
Let’s take a closer look at the top 11 hazards faced by American workers in the spring:
1. Rain & Flooding
Often caused by melting snow and sudden showers, flooding is a real problem in many parts of the country during the spring. This can make any worksite dangerous. Rain can make ladders, walkways, and stairs slippery and treacherous. It can create mud and flood areas of worksites, causing machinery to malfunction, vehicles to lose traction, and even trenches to collapse. Cave-ins and machinery or vehicle accidents are more likely during rain and flooding – when workers are not properly protected against wet weather conditions.
Slip and fall accidents can be some of the most common and potentially dangerous accidents that can occur during wet weather conditions. Workers can easily lose their footing and suffer severe injuries such as broken bones, head injuries, or even spinal cord injuries. It is crucial for employers to take necessary precautions, such as providing slip-resistant footwear, installing proper drainage systems, and ensuring workers are aware of potential hazards.
In addition to slip and fall accidents, falls from heights are also a significant concern during rainy and flooding conditions. Workers who are required to work on elevated platforms or roofs must be especially careful during wet weather, as surfaces can become extremely slippery, increasing the risk of falls. Employers should ensure that proper fall protection equipment, such as harnesses and guardrails, are in place and functioning correctly.
A damp, muddy work area can prove risky for workers and equipment. It is far more difficult to operate machinery or drive vehicles in the mud, as traction and control may be lost completely. Work vehicles are more likely to slide, tip, or roll over in the mud, and workers can be struck or caught underneath. Walking in the mud is also tricky and can lead to sprains or strains from slipping and falling or even attempting to pull one’s feet out of the mud. Sometimes workers’ boots can become stuck while they fall, leading to awkward positioning and serious sprains.
In addition to making surfaces slippery and reducing traction, muddy conditions can also lead to trenches and excavations collapsing. Workers who are involved in digging or excavation work, such as pipeline construction or foundation excavation, are at high risk of being buried alive due to the collapse of unstable walls of mud or soil.
Another hazard of muddy worksites is the potential for electrocution. Heavy rain and mud can cause electrical hazards on worksites, especially if power tools or machinery come into contact with water or wet soil. Moreover, muddy worksites can lead to workers experiencing fatigue, which can increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Workers may need to exert more effort to move around, operate machinery or lift heavy objects in muddy conditions, leading to exhaustion.
To remedy these hazards, employers must:
- Ensure workers are equipped and trained to recognize hazards caused by mud and take necessary precautions.
- Schedule frequent breaks, rotate workstations, and adjust workloads to prevent overexertion.
- Ensure that all electrical equipment is grounded and kept clear of wet debris.
While working outdoors in the spring, lightning is a real concern. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there are about 20 to 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the United States each year! More than 300 people are struck by lighting annually, causing about 50 deaths and many more catastrophic injuries. Workers in logging, construction, roofing, heavy equipment operation, power line repair, farming, plumbing, and building maintenance are at the highest risk of lightning hazards. These are increased during spring thunderstorms. OSHA recommends, “When thunder roars, go indoors!” Outdoor workers should immediately seek shelter if they hear thunder. Worksites should be closed during extreme thunderstorms and weather.
In addition to seeking shelter indoors, there are other precautions outdoor workers can take to protect themselves from lightning strikes. For instance, workers should avoid standing under or near tall objects such as trees, telephone poles, or antennas that can act as lightning rods. Workers should move away from metal objects, such as fences or equipment, that can conduct electricity. If workers are in a group, they should spread out to minimize the risk of multiple people being struck by lightning.
Employers should also have an emergency action plan in place in case of a lightning strike. The plan should include procedures for evacuating the worksite and providing medical attention to any injured workers. Employers should educate workers on the plan, including the location of the nearest shelter and the procedures for reporting a lightning strike.
Furthermore, employers should provide appropriate protective equipment for workers who work in high-risk areas during spring thunderstorms. Protective equipment such as rubber-soled shoes, insulated gloves, and hard hats can help protect workers from electrical shock in case of lightning strikes.
Wind and windstorms are another potential spring hazard for workers across the country. Oil and gas workers, power linemen, construction workers, and any other people who work at heights may be in serious danger during high winds. Workers may lose their footing while working on scaffolding, ladders, power lines, or elevated worksites, and if they lack proper fall protection, they could suffer catastrophic injuries from falling. Strong gusts of wind can knock objects or equipment from higher platforms, striking workers below. It can even knock over heavy machinery and equipment like cranes. Workers, equipment, and machinery must be safely secured during windstorms.
In addition to working at heights, wind and windstorms can also pose risks for workers on the ground. Workers who operate machinery or vehicles, such as forklifts, trucks, and cranes, are at risk of losing control during high winds. Wind gusts can cause vehicles to tip over or lose control, leading to accidents and injuries. Therefore, workers must be properly trained in safe driving practices and be aware of the hazards of operating machinery in windy conditions.
Employers should also ensure that their workers wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) during high wind conditions. PPE such as hard hats, safety goggles, and gloves can protect workers from flying debris or objects knocked over by the wind. Employers should also provide workers with clothing and gear appropriate for windy weather, such as windbreakers and goggles that do not impair visibility.
In addition to securing equipment and machinery, employers should also secure loose items on the worksite, such as building materials, tools, and debris. Employers should conduct regular inspections of the worksite and remove any potential hazards that could be blown around by high winds.
Most tornadoes hit in the spring, although they can occur at any time of year. From 1991 through 2020, April, May, and June had the highest average number of tornadoes in the United States, with 182, 268, and 212 respectively. July came in fourth at 118, followed by August with 81. People who work in any of the states along Tornado Alley (Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska) may be at a higher risk of encountering a tornado while on the job. Because they have the potential to wreak such havoc, the only option in the face of a tornado warning is to seek shelter.
Employers can take several measures to prepare for tornadoes and protect their workers. One of the most critical steps is to have a written emergency plan in place and to regularly review and update it. The plan should include information on how to monitor weather conditions and how to receive alerts or warnings of tornadoes. Employers should also identify designated safe areas for employees to seek shelter during a tornado, such as a basement or interior room on the lowest level of a building.
It's important to ensure that all workers are aware of the emergency plan, including the location of safe areas, and are trained in tornado safety procedures. This training should include information on how to recognize the signs of a tornado, such as dark skies, hail, or a roaring sound, and what to do if a tornado warning is issued. Additionally, employers should provide workers with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hard hats and safety glasses, to protect against flying debris in the event of a tornado.
6. Downed Power Lines
Severe spring weather can lead to an increased chance of downed power lines, which can pose a risk to workers in the area as well as those tasked with clearing and repairing the lines. OSHA advises workers to always assume a power line is live and to never approach or touch a downed power line, even if it is not sparking. Every electrical line should be considered energized until appropriately tested and proven otherwise. For more information, see OSHA Fact Sheet: Working Safely Around Downed Electrical Wires.
Workers who are responsible for clearing or repairing downed power lines should be properly trained and equipped to handle these situations safely. This includes wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as insulated gloves, boots, and clothing, to protect against electrical shocks. Additionally, workers should be trained to recognize the signs of electrical shock, such as tingling sensations, numbness, or burns, and to seek medical attention immediately if they experience these symptoms.
It is also essential to have a clear plan in place for responding to downed power lines, which includes identifying potential hazards, such as nearby gas lines or other utilities, and communicating with workers and emergency responders. Workers should also be trained in the proper use of tools and equipment, such as insulated tools and grounding rods, to safely handle downed power lines.
Finally, employers should ensure that workers are aware of and trained in emergency response procedures in case of electrical shock or other injuries. This includes having first aid kits and AEDs (automated external defibrillators) on-site and providing workers with CPR training. By taking these steps, employers can help protect their workers from the hazards associated with downed power lines and other electrical hazards during severe spring weather.
7. Trench Collapses & Cave-Ins
Spring rain, floods, and mud all increase the chances of trench collapses and cave-ins. Workers can be crushed or may suffocate if the trenches they’re working in are not properly constructed and supported. Soil is extremely heavy, particularly when wet, and rain and flooding can make trenches ticking timebombs. Trench work should cease when rain and floods make conditions too risky.
8. Dangerous Driving Conditions
Spring is also a dangerous time to be on the road, with the potential for rain, sleet, and even snow. Roads can become slippery and visibility can become limited. For truckers and others who drive for a living, they are also likely to see more traffic. Road construction projects typically resume as snow melts and temperatures rise. All motorists must use extra caution while driving in the spring, in any weather.
9. Allergens & Insects
Dust, allergens, and even insects are a bigger problem during the spring, and workers with allergies or respiratory problems can suffer the consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of Americans suffer from allergies caused by dust, pet danger, and pollen. Workers should be on the lookout for increased allergies during the spring, and if they notice worsening asthma or new-onset asthma when work begins, it could be work-related. Employers can take specific steps to prevent work-related asthma.
10. Heat Exhaustion
Spring may be known for its milder temperatures, but in some areas the weather may become warm enough that heat exhaustion is real risk for indoor and outdoor workers. According to OSHA, about 50-70% of outdoor heat exposure fatalities happen within the first few days of working in a warm environment because the body has not acclimated to working in higher temperatures. As temperatures increase during the spring, employers must take care to train workers on recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion, must allow for breaks to let workers cool off, and must provide the right gear to withstand warmer weather.
11. Tight Deadlines
The final risk we’ll discuss for workers in the spring relates to deadlines. Particularly in areas like construction, where work may temporarily cease during winter storms and snowy weather, spring means work can resume. It also means that deadlines are still looming on projects that may have been delayed, and this can lead to increased pressure to finish. Rushing through any project will increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Employers must balance the workload with deadlines to ensure safety is always a priority.
What Can Be Done to Protect Workers in the Spring?
In the spring and during any season, employers are responsible for providing and maintaining safe environments for their workers. This includes anticipating and addressing the unique challenges that springtime will bring, like rain, lightning, mud, and even tornadoes. They must provide workers with the right personal protective equipment (PPE), observe OSHA standards related to the work environment, and suspend operations when extreme weather is predicted.
Arnold & Itkin stands for America’s hardest workers. We believe that no worker, regardless of how inherently dangerous their job may seem, deserves to face unnecessary risks. When employers ignore weather warnings, cut corners to try to boost production, or do anything that puts profits over the safety of their workers, we stand up and show them that they must be held accountable. No matter what.