Wayne County, MI
AFL - CIO
Vice President's Report
November / December 2017
Letter Carrier Winter Weather Safety
Snow, ice, and cold cause or contribute to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of letter carrier injuries and illnesses each year. The actual number
cannot be accurately known since many letter carrier injuries are never reported because of fear, intimidation, and lack of knowledge. However, the single most effective method of preventing a job-related injury is always to perform all work with safety in mind at all times. This means always taking enough time to work with full awareness and complete control of your work environment so that you can properly respond when hazardous situations occur.
Just over a year ago, in December 2016 about ten days of deep snow, ice and cold resulted in more than a dozen significant injuries to Branch 2184 letter
carriers. Ironically, this occurred at the start of what was an otherwise “mild” winter season, at least by Michigan standards. Additionally, some of our
newer City Carrier Assistants (CCAs) are experiencing their first real Michigan winter season performing letter carrier work. Veteran letter carriers should
make every effort to provide helpful suggestions and assistance to our newest brothers and sisters regarding protective clothing and safe work methods. A
review of some practical winter weather safety information for letter carriers follows.
Unlike reptiles, humans are warm-blooded creatures (or at least most of us are). As a result our bodies must respond to and compensate for differences
in temperature between our surrounding environment and our normal body temperature of about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Moving air enhances the chilling effect of cold air by carrying heat and moisture away from our bodies. This effect is typically referred to as the windchill. Windchill also affects animals, but has no effect on inanimate objects such as automobiles. Windchill is not the actual ambient temperature of the air, but rather it is a measure of the effect of the cold air plus the effect of wind on exposed skin.
Since a letter carrier during the winter season usually spends six or more hours per day exposed to cold and wind, the risk of cold-related injury is significant. The most common and a potentially serious cold-related injury incurred by letter carriers is frostbite. Frostbite can occur anywhere on the body, although the face, hands, and feet are most susceptible. The initial symptoms of frostbite are a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance of the skin on extremities such as fingers, toes, earlobes, or the tip of the nose. If you detect these symptoms, stop and seek medical help immediately. Continuing to work with the initial symptoms of frostbite may result in serious and permanent tissue damage.
Job-related frostbite is a traumatic injury and should also be immediately reported on Department of Labor OWCP Form CA-1 when it occurs. Frostbite
is considered a medical emergency. If medical treatment is not immediately available slowly rewarm the affected area, but do not immerse it in hot water. Since there is a loss of feeling with frostbite, burns can result. Frostbite is perhaps the most underreported winter season letter carrier injury, particularly
among newer, less experienced letter carriers.
A less common but even more serious condition is hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to cold, wind, and moisture can result in a drop in body temperature
that can be dangerous and potentially fatal. If the human body temperature drops below 95 degrees, immediate medical care is necessary. The most common sign of hypothermia is uncontrolled shivering.
The importance of protecting yourself by dressing properly before working in the cold cannot be overstated. It is better for a letter carrier to wear several layers of lighter clothing rather than one very heavy garment, because body heat and warmer air gets trapped between the layers, providing an insulating
effect. The layer of clothing that is closest to your skin should be of a light material that will not trap moisture from perspiration next to your skin, but
rather allows moisture to pass through the material. About half of the body’s heat loss in cold weather is through the top of the head; thus wearing a hat is essential for maintaining body heat. Insulated boots or other protective footwear is important for protection against both cold and moisture. Mittens are better than gloves but are usually not practical for the multiple bundles of mail that letter carriers must handle.
It is helpful to eat more during periods of intense cold, because the extra calories provide the body with fuel to keep it warm. We burn more calories performing the same task in cold weather than we do when it is warm. It is also helpful to drink plenty of liquids, for two reasons. First, sweating often occurs when working in cold weather as the body heats up under layers of protective clothing. Also, cold air is often extremely dry and it draws moisture away from the body. That’s why dry and chapped skin is so common during the winter.
Although they can be beautiful to observe, winter storms pose a potential risk to everyone. About 70% of winter storm-related deaths and serious injuries occur in automobile accidents. However, virtually all of the rest involve people who are caught out in a winter storm without adequate protection or shelter, or those such as letter carriers who must be outside in winter storm conditions as a result of job requirements. Most postal vehicles are poorly designed (as well as poorly maintained) for handling in snowy or icy conditions, meaning that letter carriers must be especially vigilant when driving them. Falling and blowing snow also causes problems with visibility and creates treacherous conditions for walking and driving. Again, the most effective means of avoiding accidents and injuries is to work in a manner where you are always in control of your environment. Adjust your driving speed as necessary and walk in a cautious manner, using shorter and controlled steps so that you can respond to a slip on snow or ice with out falling.
Snow is not frozen rain. The term for frozen raindrops is sleet. A snowflake can melt into a raindrop but a raindrop cannot become a snowflake.
Snowflakes are formed through an entirely separate process, where particles and crystals of frozen water vapor coalesce when the proper atmospheric conditions of temperature and moisture are present. The moisture content of snow is greater when air temperatures are closer to freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit). It is this “wet snow” that often partially melts and then refreezes on surfaces such as walks and steps, creating very hazardous walking conditions,
especially if additional snow accumulates on top of the frozen layer. This situation has been the direct cause of many serious letter carrier injuries.
OTHER WINTER HAZARDS
Freezing rain or ice storms occur when liquid raindrops fall from warmer air aloft that is above freezing and then reach the ground where the temperature
is below freezing. The liquid water then turns to ice upon contact with the ground, creating very hazardous conditions for letter carriers to walk or drive. Ice storms can also cause major property damage as well as widespread electric power outages. Freezing rain is most common in the Southern Lower Peninsula and a significant ice storm occurs in Michigan about once every two years.
Sometimes rain that is falling from warmer air aloft will freeze into solid or nearly solid ice pellets before reaching the ground. This is known as sleet, and is generally less hazardous than freezing rain, although still a walking and driving hazard for letter carriers. Sleet is sometimes erroneously referred to as hail, but it is not the same as the true hail that falls from thunderstorm clouds.
A PRACTICAL RESPONSE
Many USPS supervisors unrealistically expect mail delivery to be as efficient in deep snow or icy conditions as it is during warm and dry weather, a premise which is patently absurd by any measure. Computer-generated workload information does not include weather factors, and it is up to the supervisor to make real world considerations about a letter carrier’s daily work. There is no reason to get upset when a supervisor fails to realistically assess your work. Don’t argue; simply follow the established reporting procedures in the M-41 handbook, and notify management if you are subsequently unable to
meet unrealistic time expectations.
Those computer workload “numbers” are merely management’s typically inaccurate estimates. Your actual work as a professional letter carrier is the final determinant of what is real. Always take all of the necessary time and precautions to avoid injury or illness due to hazardous weather conditions.
Overexertion in deep snow and severe cold or during intense summer heat and humidity can be dangerous even for a healthy and well-conditioned person.
It is always appropriate to list weather conditions on PS form 3996 as a reason for requesting assistance or overtime when it is clear to you that the
weather will be impacting the time needed for street duties. It does not help that letter carriers are routinely instructed to walk across lawns. As a result, in
the winter the normal walkway is often covered with snow. Most customers do not shovel their lawns.
If existing or developing weather conditions result in the need for more time than was expected or authorized to complete deliveries, letter carriers should simply contact management for instructions. NEVER skip any portion of your lunch or break times, or perform work in a manner that is unsafe for delivery conditions simply to make up time lost because of the weather. Stopping for food provides important fuel and energy for the body’s internal warmth. Lunch and break times also provide a necessary respite from prolonged exposure to harsh conditions.
In summary, winter weather in a climate such as Michigan’s brings unique and difficult hazards for all letter carriers. Management is concerned only with making their “numbers,” and in most instances could not care less about your personal health or safety. It is ultimately up to YOU to do whatever is necessary to avoid winter weather-related injuries and illnesses.
-- Joe Golonka