I went to college in rural Ohio on a campus that had some pretty rugged elements. The winter months possessed a bipolar quality that would find the mole-hollowed grass quads and gravel paths blanketed by a poetic expanse of unbroken snow one day, then they would thaw into ankle-deep bog-pits of shale clay the next. Then the temperature would plummet and the entire place froze glacier-solid that same night. The result was like something out of a Laurel & Hardy movie. The campus basically turned into a giant slip ’n slide with people involuntarily depositing themselves in violent, gymnastic heaps all over the place. I remember when I did it once: A friend told me that what I went through didn’t look physically possible. I fell straight down, but also sideways at the same time, somehow, like someone had lassoed my ankles and yanked.
What does this have to do with the problem of musculoskeletal injuries in the American workforce? Well, in this age of polar vortexes and atmospheric rivers, there’s no telling the kinds of weather-related complications frontline workers are going to face from month to month.
If slips and falls are a problem for American injuries (and they are. These injuries cost companies $10.4 billion per year as the #2 leading cause of workplace injury), then we can assume that winter weather only makes the frequency of injuries worse. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics clocked the incidence rate of slips and falls on the same level at 27.5 per 10,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2017. The same organization did a 2014 study on cold-weather injuries resulting from slips and falls, which came to 42,480 for the year. It’s a pretty great read, actually, breaking down the injury rate by state using a number of different metrics to tell the full story. Moreover, the same study found that 34,860 of those occurred on level ground and eight percent of which occurred indoors; in entryways, hallways and other rooms where ice and snow have been tracked in from outside. And it’s in the name of these injuries that companies have even created cold-weather training simulators like this one. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
I don’t tell you this to say that if you work outside in the winter you’re doomed. On the contrary: Companies are actively trying to tackle this issue. Cold-weather injuries are enough of a problem that OSHA has released a set of handy guidelines for making the workplace safe for folks who have to operate in this weather. But their suggestions are largely limited to ergonomic and environmental enhancements.
This leaves us with movement solutions: Things we can do within our bodies, changes to the way we physically prepare and perform as a means of avoiding these kinds of injuries.
So why in the name of all this did I tell you about college? Simply attending college doesn’t exactly qualify me as an expert on ambulation across mixed winter terrain. However, becoming a strength & conditioning coach has allowed me to reflect on the experience and reverse-engineer a mechanical explanation for what solid mechanics look like in winter conditions.
The solution, I’ve found, becomes about tension and foot placement. Heel to toe steps don’t really work. In place of your normal stride, it becomes necessary to walk across the middle of the foot. If you can’t quite imagine what that looks like, consider walking barefoot across a floor littered with legos in the pitch dark. Search for safe purchase with your foot close to the ground, leading with your toes down, then land softly on the ball of the foot. This keeps the feet directly underneath your torso, your entire foot on the ground, and the stride very short, thus reducing the possibility that you’ll overextend and lose your balance. The byproduct of this technique is that the legs automatically tense through the hamstrings, glutes, and quads. This bracing effect continues upstream into the abs and lower back. Basically, it’s like moving assuming you’re gonna eat it, but the resulting concert played between the upper and lower torsos is a kind of automatic (and kind of ironic) slip-proofing. Also, really engaging the abs does the work of protecting your spine. The falls that occur on icy ground can generate very sudden and strong shear forces through the body that, if you aren’t properly organized, can result in tweaks to the lower back and even herniations to the discs. Focusing on sort of shrink-wrapping your body below the chest (abs, legs) allows you to assume control over your body in a totally unpredictable environment and gives you as positive contact with the ground as possible without resorting to crawling on your hands and knees.
So, there you have it. While these situations aren’t ideal, as an electrical lineman in northern Minnesota will tell you, they are often unavoidable. We know, we’ve worked with them. Take as many ergonomic precautions as possible, but also organize your body effectively to protect yourself in ways that simply wearing the right footwear can’t.