Winter and the Workplace


Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.

If you’ve never read Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee“, here’s a little background: it’s the story of two men digging for gold in the Arctic. Sam McGee, a proper Southerner, was not happy with this arrangement as he was not use/ did not like/ did not know how to deal with the cold.

When the winter weather hits, businesses have workers who must venture outside, drivers who must venture out on the icy roads, and employees who might rather take a sick day than leave their warm homes to go out in the snow (even if it is only to walk four feet to a heated car and drive to a, hopefully, heated office.)

Because of the varying nature of job functions, as well as the different temperaments of employees, there are many things employees should take into account when the winter weather strikes.

As examples:

  • Drivers: Did you know that, according to the National Weather Service, about 70% of winter weather injuries come from vehicular accidents?
  • Outdoors Staff: If you have workers who must be outside for long increments in order to successfully perform their jobs, they might be at risk for weather-related illnesses, frost bite, or slips, trips, and falls resulting from the icy terrain.
  • Just Plain ol’ Sam McGee’s: Some workers are just not going to like the cold and others, specifically us misplaced Southerners, are not going to know (and are going to be afraid to learn) how to drive in the snow and ice, which makes even the short commute to work a scary, death-defying feat that we may or may not be willing to take.

Back in the poem, Sam McGee let the winter weather get the best of him, and, before he froze, he made the narrator of the story promise that he would cremate Sam instead of just dropping his body.

Employers also have an obligation to their workers. Almost all businesses are regulated by OSHA (or an at least equally tough state version) and the General Duty Clause, which requires you to provide a workplace free from recognized safety and health hazards – which could include some wintery conditions.

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.

In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.

Lugging around dead, frozen bodies can be difficult. Ask the narrator of this poem. He had promised to cremate his friend, and got stuck with the body until he could find a place to start a fire.

And when workers get sick, get injured, or die, the burden on the employer is only increased.

Now, you might have to worry about:

  • Workers’ compensation claims;
  • Reporting/recording the event for OSHA;
  • Investigating the accident to find causes to make sure it doesn’t happen again;
  • Increased healthcare costs; and
  • Finding someone to take over the workload until a replacement can be found and then finding the replacement.

Those last two could hurt you even if the accident or illness happened while the employee was not on the job.

Instead of worrying about all these scenarios, there are lots of things you can do before winter hurts your workplace:

  • Properly prepare any trucks or company-supplied vehicles for the snow and ice, and teach employees, such as sales staff, who drive their own cars for work, what needs to be done to safeguard their own means of transportation.
  • Give training in driving in the snow or ice – require it for paid drivers, make it optional for employees who drive to work.
  • If jobs can be done remotely, consider offering telecommuting options when winter storms hit.
  • Train outside workers in how to insulate themselves from the weather and in recognizing the signs of frostbite.
  • Make sure you have proper personal protective equipment for your outside workers.
  • Take advantage of OSHA’s winter resource center
  • See what XpertHR has to say on the topic.

[Spoiler Alert:] To end on a happy note, it turns out Sam McGee might not have died after all – depending on your interpretation of the poem. All he needed was a little help. When the narrator returned after having cremated Sam, this is what happened:

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;

And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.

It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm–

Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

Take these tips, and hopefully your winter will end on a happy note!