TASB Risk Management Fund

How to Avoid Common Winter-Weather Claims

February 05, 2020 Charles Hueter and David Wylie

ice hanging off roof

Winter brings a welcome reprieve from soaring temperatures and suffocating humidity. For educational entities, cold weather also increases the risk of vehicle damage, burst pipes, collapsed roofs, and employee injuries. The Fund encourages our members to follow these tips to avoid filing unnecessary claims, repairing damage, and investing resources in returning to normal operations.

Practice routine vehicle maintenance

Vehicles need special care in the winter. Cold weather can turn warm air in fuel tanks into water, which can compromise fuel economy and engine performance. Your fleet management program should call for routine maintenance on all vehicles.

Follow these tips during the winter and all year long to keep your vehicles road-ready:

  • Replace worn wiper blades.
  • Never leave a fuel tank less than half-full for longer than a day. 
  • Follow manufacturer instructions for the type of oil your vehicles need in the winter.
  • Top off fluids every time the oil is changed.
  • Add passenger vehicle batteries to your routine maintenance and replacement schedules.
  • Remember that most brakes start to wear out within three years. Learn the signs that brakes need to be replaced, such as increased stopping distance, a shaky steering wheel, or a strange noise when you apply the brakes.
  • Regularly test vehicle lights, including turn signals, hazards, and brake lights.
  • Check tires and engine belts for wear.

Transportation directors and fleet managers should discuss hazards that drivers might encounter. Make sure staff knows alternate routes and what to do in an emergency. Stress the importance of following winter driving safety tips. Employees can visit drivetexas.org to monitor road conditions.

Protect pipes, buildings, and equipment

Frozen pipes are the leading property-related risk when the temperature drops. It might seem like a good idea to save money over long weekends and holidays by turning the heat down or off. Unfortunately, most school buildings are decades old and less energy-efficient than their modern counterparts. Age, along with wear and tear, can cause heating loss.

Follow these tips before closing for long periods:

  • Open doors to sink cabinets and other areas that have water pipes to allow warm air to circulate.
  • Insulate exterior pipes and faucets.
  • Do not let interior temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit if possible.

Need to let temperatures drop below 50 degrees?

If you must let temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, take additional preventive measures. Moving water is harder to freeze, so run a trickle of warm water from the taps along exterior walls. Underwriters Laboratories-approved heat trace tape or thermostatically controlled heat cable installed along pipes according to manufacturer instructions can protect critical pipe systems and those exposed to the coldest air. Shutting off water to the building and draining the pipes is another option, but remember that this could prevent your fire sprinkler system from working. Check with the system manufacturer or installer to be sure.

Fire sprinkler system maintenance tips

Fire sprinkler systems are critical and must be inspected regularly. If your system uses anti-freeze, the manufacturer has standards for how much solution should be in the pipes. If fire sprinkler systems must be exposed to freezing temperatures, wrap them with insulation, and consider heat tape or cable to keep them warm. You should also evaluate modern security and fire alarm systems that allow you to monitor building conditions remotely.

Other tips to maintain your buildings in the winter include:

  • Lock unheated buildings to prevent people from entering and suffering hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses.
  • Keep boilers running, test their pressure-relief valves monthly, and get them inspected regularly, per state law.
  • Promptly repair leaky doors, windows, and cracks.
  • Keep at least three feet clear around heat-producing equipment.
  • Test backup electricity supplies.
  • Remove leaves, snow, and ice from roofs and gutters.
  • Check roofs and ceilings for loose shingles that can catch wind and trap snow or ice.
  • Clear ice and snow from tree limbs. The added weight could cause them to break and fall on roofs, power lines, and vehicles.

Plan for emergencies

Emergency planning can help you avoid headline-grabbing crises, but you should also prepare for seasonal hazards:

  • Conduct regularly scheduled security checks of closed buildings. Extend the checks inside buildings to monitor heat, water, and power issues that could cause emergencies.
  • Provide staff with emergency contacts at the campus, district, and community levels. Publish the list so parents and the community can report emergencies, as well.
  • Make sure key staff are familiar with resources to monitor and communicate weather alerts.
  • Prepare cold-weather kits for staff who respond to emergencies. Kits could include slippery/icy floor signs; gloves, hats, and warming packets; flashlights with fresh batteries; a printed list of emergency contacts; pen and paper for taking notes; and water and snacks to help them through long hours away from home.

Prepare employees who work outdoors

Cold weather can linger long after holiday cheer gives way to back-to-school blues. Some forms of cold stress can set in during relatively mild 60-degree temperatures, especially when combined with moisture. Train employees on your organization’s safety procedures, which should include these guidelines:

  • Monitor wind chill, which combines temperature and wind speed. Wind chill tells you how cold it feels outside.  
  • Wear at least three layers of loose clothing, but avoid cotton. It holds moisture longer than synthetics.
  • Take frequent, short breaks in warm, dry areas.
  • Remember that dehydration is a risk in hot and cold weather. Drink warm beverages, but avoid alcohol and caffeine. They can hinder the body’s ability to produce heat.
  • Schedule outdoor work during the warmest part of the day when possible.
  • Walk like a penguin on slick surfaces: Bend your knees slightly; keep your feet flat; take short, shuffle-like steps; and extend your arms at your sides for balance.

Everyone wants the winter months to go as smooth as ice, but let’s keep the ice outside, where it belongs. If you are Fund member who wants to learn more about protecting your resources, your risk solutions consultant is here to partner with you.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in November 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Tagged: "weather safety", "workplace safety"