7 Common Causes of Death During Winter Storms (and How to Prevent Them)

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Death is not a pleasant topic of conversation. Yet we’ve all confronted our own mortality at some point, and it’s not uncommon to wonder how we’ll ultimately shuffle off this mortal coil. Hopefully your time is later rather than sooner, but not everybody is so lucky. As the dead of winter slowly creeps toward us, so too will an unfortunate spate of accidents that will claim a significant number of our hemispheric colleagues. Here are some of the ways foul winter weather can do you in, and what you can do to stop your number from coming up this season.

1. CAR ACCIDENTS

The vast majority of people who die in winter storms perish as the result of car accidents. A 2015 study from the University of Georgia noted that winter storms directly claimed 571 lives between 1996 and 2011; however, this number jumps to a staggering 13,852 deaths over the same period if you include car and plane crashes caused by winter storms.

It’s easy to say that the best way to prevent injury or death during a winter storm is to just stay home, but that’s not an economic reality for millions of people who have to trudge to work regardless of snow and ice. If you ever have to venture out during a winter storm, try to take more heavily-traveled routes if possible, since highway crews treat those roadways first. Make sure you have emergency supplies in your car—food, water, a way to stay warm, a cell phone charger, a full tank of gas, batteries, flashlights, a first aid kit, a shovel, and litter or sand for tire traction—in case you get stuck for a long period of time.

If your vehicle starts to slide on ice, take your foot off both the gas and the brake, gently steering into the direction the back of your car is sliding; if the back of your car is sliding left, gently turn left to correct. If you’re involved in a pileup accident, stay in your car until the coast is clear, then quickly get as far off the side of the road as possible. Pileup accidents, or accidents that involve many cars (sometimes hundreds) at once, are a significant hazard during winter storms.

2. SLIP AND FALLS

Slipping on an icy sidewalk or driveway is almost a rite of passage for people who grow up in colder climates. It seems like we all know somebody who broke an arm or a leg when they fell victim to gravity during or after a winter storm. These slips aren’t always just broken bones, and falling the wrong way can critically injure or even kill you.

If you have to venture across an icy surface, sprinkle salt, sand, or cat litter ahead of you to give you some traction as you walk. If none is available, walk with a flat foot. We normally walk heel-toe, heel-toe, which puts all of your body weight on a small part of your foot, leaving you susceptible to slipping. If you walk with a flat foot (like a penguin), you spread your weight out over a larger area and give yourself more control.

3. SNOW SHOVELING

Shoveling snow is a grueling exercise that can leave you sore and gasping for air after a couple of scoops. Powdery snow doesn’t weigh much at all, but a nice shovel full of heavy, wet snow can weigh more than 20 pounds. Do that a few dozen times to clear your sidewalk, and you’re going to be hurting tomorrow.

Doing that kind of strenuous activity can wreak havoc on your body; the Cleveland Clinic reports that shoveling snow sends more than 11,000 people to the hospital every year. While most of those injuries are caused by the act of shoveling itself, many of them are victims of heart attacks from the strenuous, sudden exercise. To prevent injury, make sure you stretch before shoveling snow, and take frequent breaks while you’re clearing it away. Keep your hands at least a foot apart on the shovel's handle, keeping one hand as close to the blade as you can comfortably hold it. Try to push the snow (like a snow plow) when possible to minimize strain. If you know you have health issues, it's best to find or hire someone else to shovel snow for you.

4. HYPOTHERMIA

Your mother didn’t tell you to wear your coat for nothing. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can force your body temperature dangerously low, a condition known as hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in order to fully recover. If left unchecked, it can quickly kill you.

Hypothermia is a silent killer; most of the people who succumb to this weather-induced condition are ill or elderly, and many of the thousands of hypothermia deaths every year go almost unnoticed compared to folks who die in events like tornadoes or hurricanes.

You can protect yourself from hypothermia by making sure you’re always prepared for extreme cold by having emergency supplies like coats, blankets, and heat sources in your home and vehicle. If you have plans to venture outdoors, keep up with current forecasts to ensure that you’re not caught outside during a major cold snap. Also make sure you check on your elderly or susceptible neighbors during cold weather, and help them out if you can.

5. THIN ICE

The danger of falling through thin ice is closely tied to hypothermia. It’s common for still bodies of water to develop a layer of ice during bouts of bitterly cold temperatures, but that ice is often much weaker than it looks. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (and Minnesota would know), it takes at least four inches of solid ice to be able to walk across it without falling through. The ice should be at least five inches thick to drive a snowmobile or ATV across, and it needs to be about a foot thick in order to safely drive across it in a personal vehicle like a car or truck.

6. FALLING TREES AND ICE

It doesn’t take much ice or snow to put enormous stress on trees or power lines. It only takes a few inches of wet snow, or a quarter of an inch of ice accretion, to cause weaker branches and power lines to fall. Higher amounts of wintry precipitation can cause even stronger objects to break, and a major winter storm can bring down even the mightiest trees and metal transformer towers. Make sure you keep trees and large limbs away from your house, and don’t walk underneath anything sagging or leaning under the weight of snow or ice.

It’s not just falling trees or power lines that can cause you harm; falling ice itself can weigh as much as a large rock and hit the ground with enough velocity to kill you instantly. This is a major problem around skyscrapers, where officials may have to close entire city blocks to foot and vehicle traffic due to ice falling from great heights.

7. ROOF AND BUILDING COLLAPSES

Last but not least, even your own home or local grocery store isn’t immune from the weight of frozen water. Extreme amounts of snow, ice, and standing water on a building’s roof can strain the structure to the point of failure. This is especially common in commercial buildings with large, flat roofs (like box stores or warehouses), but it can also happen to homes with existing structural issues. The best way to make sure the roof doesn’t cave in on you is to make sure your home or building is structurally sound, and try to (safely) clear away any snow and ice that could stress the building to the point of failure.

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January 11, 2016 - 12:00am
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