Safety Officers Offer Cold-weather Tips
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2012 Despite an unseasonably mild winter for much of the United States, military safety officials offer a reminder that Old Man Winter still has two months to go as they underscore the importance of winter safety for service members and their families.
“The month of February often packs a big winter punch, and it’s not too late to prepare,” advised April Phillips, public affairs director for the U.S. Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.
The Naval Safety Center, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., and U.S. Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., all kicked off winter safety campaigns in the fall, emphasizing that winter conditions require special precautions -- both on and off duty.
They’re increasingly using social media and blogs among other outreach tools to raise awareness and provide tips on everything from how to drive in hazardous blizzard conditions to how to shovel heavy snow.
For example, in addition to advising commanders to build and manage quality winter safety programs for their units, the
Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center also promoted a “Take 5” message that promotes safety awareness to families and Army civilians as well.
It encourages members of the Army community to “Take 5” -- that’s five minutes, five seconds or more or fewer as necessary -- to think situations through to make the right safety decisions, explained Army Brig. Gen. William T. Wolf, the Army center director, in his message to the field.
That brief pause, he said, can make a difference in preventing accidental death and injury.
“Colder months present unique challenges for keeping our soldiers and their family members safe,” Wolf noted. “By working together, we can reduce the risk in all fall and winter activities. Make a plan [and] get the right gear.”
Driving in icy, snowy and dark conditions is among the most dangerous winter activities. Phillips reported, for example, that seven of the nine sailors and Marines killed in off-duty accidents from Dec. 1 to Jan. 19 were involved in motor vehicle and motorcycle accidents.
A Naval Safety Center fact sheet, “Winter, Your Car, and You,” urges service members to ensure their personally owned vehicles are in shape for winter by inspecting the battery, ignition, brakes, wiring, hoses and fan belts; changing and adjusting the spark plugs, ensuring tires have adequate tread; and checking the antifreeze level.
Navy safety officials also recommended keeping a winter survival kit in the trunk, with essential supplies including a working flashlight and spare batteries, first-aid kit, ice scraper and snow brush, blankets and nonperishable, high-energy foods such as nuts and granola bars.
Few military bases in the United States have winter safety awareness programs as active as the one at Joint Base Elmendorf-Fort Richardson, Alaska -- a state that’s been buried in record snowfalls this winter.
Commanders there put out regular guidance to ensure their military members and families are prepared to deal with deep snow, ice, frigid cold and long hours of darkness, said media relations officer Chuck Canterbury.
Among guidance they provide is to wear several layers of clothing for warmth, drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, keep vehicles stocked with emergency items and make sure school children’s clothing has glow-in-the-dark markings when they walk in winter darkness to and from the on-base school, he said.
The message appears to be resonating with the military community as people look out for each other, Canterbury said. So far this winter, no off-duty fatalities have been reported.
“Service members use the buddy system,” he said. “By [observing] your buddy, you can keep him safe from frostbite and other cold weather dangers.”
According to officials at the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, being able to recognize these dangers is the key to avoid cold-weather injuries. They offer these descriptions of the most common cold-weather injuries:
-- Frostbite. Frostbite is the freezing of skin tissue that can extend through all layers of the skin and freeze muscle and bone. Frozen skin may turn red and then gray-blue with blisters. In the worst cases, the skin dies and turns blue-black, often requiring amputation. Deep frozen skin feels “wooden” to the touch, with zero mobility of the affected body part. Instantaneous frostbite can occur when skin comes into contact with super-cooled liquids including petroleum, oils and lubricants, antifreeze and alcohol, all of which remain liquid at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
-- Frostnip. Frostnip is the freezing of the top layers of the skin and is considered the first degree of frostbite. Frostnip usually results from short-duration exposure to cold air or contact with a cold object, such as metal. Exposed skin such as the cheeks, ears, fingers and wrists are more likely to develop frostnip.
-- Chilblains. Chilblains is a nonfreezing cold injury that results from repeated, prolonged skin exposure to cold and wet temperatures above freezing. Exposed skin becomes red, tender and hot to the touch and is usually itchy. These symptoms can worsen to an aching, “pins-and-needles” sensation, then numbness. Chilblains can develop in exposed skin in only a few hours. The most commonly affected areas are the ears, nose, fingers and toes.
-- Immersion foot/trench foot. Immersion foot is a nonfreezing injury that results from prolonged exposure to wet conditions between 32 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or inactivity with damp socks and boots. Immersing feet in cold water, infrequent socks changing, poor hygiene and allowing sweat to accumulate in boots or gloves will soften the skin, causing tissue loss and often infection.
-- Hypothermia. Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition that involves cooling of the body’s core temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia occurs when body heat loss exceeds heat production due to prolonged cold exposure. Although hypothermia usually is associated with cold climates, it can occur at temperatures well above freezing, especially when a person is exposed to wet conditions for an extended period of time.
-- Dehydration. Dehydration, most commonly associated with hot weather, is a lack of water in the body. Less understood is that it’s also easy to become dehydrated in cold weather, when many people fail to drink enough liquids and underestimate fluid loss from sweating. Proper hydration is especially important in cold weather because dehydration adversely affects the body’s resistance to the cold, increasing the chance of injury.
Meanwhile, Army safety officials share these American Automobile Association tips for safe winter driving:
-- Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly is the best method for maintaining traction and avoiding skids. Also, gradually slow down for stoplights. Remember, it takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
-- Drive slowly. Everything, whether it’s accelerating, stopping or turning, takes longer on snow-covered roads than on dry pavement. Increase your following distance to eight to 10 seconds to provide more room to stop.
-- Know your brakes. Whether or not you have antilock brakes, the best way to stop is threshold braking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
-- Don't stop if you can avoid it. It’s a lot harder to overcome the inertia of a stopped vehicle than one that is still slowly rolling. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
-- Don't power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let it carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed downhill as slowly as possible.
-- Don't stop while going uphill. There are few things more difficult than trying to get moving uphill on an icy road.
-- If you really don't have to go out, don't. Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can. Don't tempt fate: If you don't have somewhere you have to be, watch the snow from indoors.
The Air Force Safety Center also offers guidance during cold-weather recreation, including skiing, snowboarding, snow-shoeing, ice hockey, snowmobiling and ice skating:
-- Wear sunglasses. Sun reflecting off of snow can sunburn the whites of one's eyes. It's painful and unattractive, in addition to being bad for eye health. Be sure to wear sunglasses, even on partly cloudy days, if you're spending time around snow.
-- Wear sunscreen. The sun reflecting off the snow can cause wicked sunburn.
-- Drink water. Winter sports can be dehydrating, but the lack of heat often causes people to forget to drink enough, which can lead to nausea and faintness. Sufficient water can also help to adjust to higher altitudes.
-- Wear recommended safety gear. Research your activity and follow the recommended guidelines for safety gear. Helmets, pads, eye wear, and more are all worth it.
-- Maintain communication. Groups can be easily separated at ski resorts and in the mountains, so be sure to carry cell phones and walkie-talkies to stay in touch. Remember that cell coverage can be spotty to nonexistent in the places skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers love, so bring a back up form of communication to keep from getting separated from your group.
-- Adjust to the altitude. If you're coming from a lower altitude to a higher one, be careful to listen to your body. Don't overdo it, and be sure to get plenty of water and rest. If you don't have time to gently adjust for a day or two after arriving in high altitude, then take plenty of breaks and listen carefully to your body.
(Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service contributed to this article.)