Insights to help businesses prepare for, respond to, and recover from winter storms
Helpful guide to winter storms for businesses
Plans outlined for the four phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery
When there’s no immediate threat, that’s the time to take the steps outlined in this plan. These actions can help limit damage from winter storms on your business.
Keeping a close eye on the weather forecast is the first step in being prepared for a winter storm. If the risk of a catastrophic storm increases, that’s when businesses need to take steps to be prepared.
The snow is starting to pile up, and the wind and ice are making travel treacherous. Now is the time for businesses to fully implement their Emergency Response Plan.
When winter weather damages your property or otherwise interrupts your operations, companies should follow the steps in this recovery plan to help get back to business.
A more volatile climate adds to extreme winter storm risks. Make sure your business is prepared to meet the challenges of the season.
As calls for urgent action on climate change make headlines around the globe, the focus is often on hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires. Less covered is how climate change may be affecting winter hazards, but the overall warming of the planet is putting more moisture into the atmosphere, resulting in more large-scale winter storms.1
The U.S. experienced nearly twice as many extreme snowstorms during the second half of the 20th century as in the first half2 and major events like the historic winter storm that hit Texas in February of 2021 indicate we’re not getting off the hook so far in this century.
Businesses now need to realize winter storm planning isn’t just for companies operating in states with traditionally colder seasonal conditions and/or heavy snowfall. Just one unexpected major winter storm can result in injuries, shut down facilities and equipment, disrupt supply chains and in a multitude of different ways adversely impact a business.
As with other natural hazards, protecting your workforce and your business from the wrath of Old Man Winter requires a thorough and regularly updated Emergency Response Plan (ERP). After setting your mitigation steps in motion, the next phase of an ERP is preparation.
Preparing your people
Extreme winter weather can put your employees, customers and business partners at risk. Slip, trip and fall accidents rise as walkways become icy and slippery. Indeed, The National Safety Council reports that in 2020, winter weather caused the most fatalities of any weather event, topping deaths caused by tornadoes and flooding.3 Make sure everyone involved in your business is ready for winter weather emergencies.
- Review National Weather Service alert terminology with staff.
- Set up a notification system so employees are aware of facility closures.
- Train employees who work outdoors about the signs and symptoms of cold weather exposure.
- Educate employees to stay home when sick.
- Carefully review all contracts for snow removal for adequate levels of insurance.
- Verify that contracts for snow removal are established when action is to begin.
Vendors, suppliers and customers
Ensure anyone outside your company who comes to your business facilities is given as much adequate warning as possible to weather-related conditions that may affect their visit. For vendors and suppliers, email and/or phone communications may be most efficient. For customers, notifications via on-site signage or website alerts may be required.
Preparing your property
Ensure you have needed supplies and equipment to help keep sidewalks, parking lots and other walkways safe as surfaces become icy. As a winter storm can hit suddenly, it’s important to have salt, sand, shovels, plows and other equipment ready well before you need to respond to the storm conditions.
Rooftop snow removal
Snowplows and snowblowers may do the job in clearing your sidewalks and parking areas, but heavy snowfall on rooftops creates risk exposures ranging from water damage to potential collapse, depending on the structure’s age, building materials and upkeep. After you’ve gauged snow loads and other snow removal planning considerations as part of mitigation efforts, be sure you have proper tools and equipment for safe, rooftop snow removal. These may include:
- Fall protection anchor points
- Fall protection connectors
- Fall protection harnesses
- Equipment to mark drop zones where snow is dropped off the roof
- Plastic snow shovels (plastic, as opposed to metal, to help reduce potential damage to roof coverings)
- Plastic sleds and tubs to transport snow off the roof
- Cranes with hoppers (if it’s not possible to dispose of snow off a roof edge)
Of course, higher-end equipment like cranes can be expensive, so your preparation should also include establishing specific triggers for when to activate a safe snow removal plan, taking into account weather conditions, building stability and potential business impacts.
Be ready for Arctic blasts
Extreme cold that comes on quickly can wreak havoc on a building’s heating and insulation. Make sure you’re ready for a sudden drop in temperature by:
- Conducting periodic cold weather inspections
- Safely increasing building heat to all areas as soon as forecasts indicate the oncoming cold
- Overriding energy saving set-back thermostats or building management programs that otherwise may automatically reduce building temperatures during the cold wave
If a business property will be idle or mainly unoccupied for any length of time, ensure you have knowledgeable professionals ready to respond as needed when extreme cold is predicted.
Freezing temperatures are a source of many property headaches, creating potential issues for water lines, plumbing and other water-based systems. Before sub-zero weather hits, make sure you have professional inspections and maintenance performed on:
- Building envelope
- Verify windows and doors are functional, weather-tight and in good repair.
- Heating systems
- Air-handling units
- Verify dampers work and fans are controlled by thermostat for automatic shutdown in the event of freezing temperatures.
- Fire alarm systems
- Check building low-temperature and sprinkler system air pressure supervisory devices in accordance with industry standards.
- Non-freeze fire protection systems
- Check dry pipe system air sources, air pressure levels and low point drains, and check antifreeze system solution in accordance with industry standards.
- Insulating systems protecting water-filled pipe
- Verify coverings are intact.
- Heat-trace systems protecting water-filled pipe
If your business depends on availability of company vehicles, be sure to:
- Review winter driving safety measures with each driver.
- Verify that emergency supplies are provided in each vehicle.
- Winterize each vehicle.
- Maintain fuel levels above a half-tank during cold weather.
Even with the best preparation, your business may suffer losses or injuries related to winter weather, so you should review your company’s current Property, Workers’ Compensation and Accident and Health insurance coverages — along with all other relevant policies — and update them or procure new coverages as needed.
Winter storm hazards are not to be underestimated, but with a carefully developed ERP, they don’t need to be a source of great anxiety. Knowing you have done all you can to prepare for cold weather risks will let you enjoy the pleasures of the season instead of its pain points.
Find guidance on the other phases in a Winter Storm Emergency Response Plan below:
The guidance in this article was provided by the Zurich Resilience Solutions (ZRS) Risk Engineering team.
- “4 reasons climate change is here, even though it's cold.” Environmental Defense Fund. Accessed 3 November 2021.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Centers for Environmental Information. “Climate Change and Extreme Snow in the U.S.” Accessed 3 November 2021.
- “Weather-Related Deaths and Injuries.” National Safety Council. 2021.
The information in this publication was compiled from sources believed to be reliable for informational purposes only. All sample policies and procedures herein should serve as a guideline, which you can use to create your own policies and procedures. We trust that you will customize these samples to reflect your own operations and believe that these samples may serve as a helpful platform for this endeavor. Any and all information contained herein is not intended to constitute advice (particularly not legal advice). Accordingly, persons requiring advice should consult independent advisors when developing programs and policies. We do not guarantee the accuracy of this information or any results and further assume no liability in connection with this publication and sample policies and procedures, including any information, methods or safety suggestions contained herein. We undertake no obligation to publicly update or revise any of this information, whether to reflect new information, future developments, events or circumstances or otherwise. Moreover, Zurich reminds you that this cannot be assumed to contain every acceptable safety and compliance procedure or that additional procedures might not be appropriate under the circumstances. The subject matter of this publication is not tied to any specific insurance product nor will adopting these policies and procedures ensure coverage under any insurance policy.
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