Winter precipitation can bring an increased risk for slips and falls on the ice and snow. Julia Henderson-Kalb, M.S., OTR/L an instructor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at Saint Louis University, recommends some simple steps to minimize fall risk.
Safety begins before you leave the house. Shoe choice can impact stability. Henderson-Kalb recommends avoiding boots or shoes with smooth soles or heels. Instead, wear shoes or boots that provide traction on snow and ice; boots made of non-slip rubber or neoprene with grooved soles are best.
A heavy, bulky coat that will cushion you if you should fall is also a wise idea, Henderson-Kalb said.
“During the day, wear sunglasses to help you see better and avoid hazards,” she said. “Make sure whatever you wear doesn’t block your vision.”
In addition to keeping your line of vision clear, it is important to remember to not overdo it. While it may be tempting to grab all your groceries in one load to more quickly escape the cold, it could impact your stability.
“You want to leave your hands and arms free to balance yourself. It’s better to make more trips,” she said. “Beware if you are carrying a heavy backpack or other load — your sense of balance will be off.”
If there is snow or ice on the ground, Henderson-Kalb recommends bending slightly and walking flat-footed. “Put your center of gravity directly over your feet as much as possible,” she said. “Take short steps or shuffle. It also helps to stop occasionally to break momentum.”
Extending your arms out to your sides can help to maintain balance. Look ahead when you walk. Walking along the grassy edge of snow- or ice-covered sidewalks or driveways provides better traction. Use hand railings when walking on steps.
“In cold temperatures, assume that all wet, dark areas on pavements are slippery and icy,” she said. “Some spots can be nearly invisible layers of ice even if they just look wet.”
In addition to planning for weather-related delays in traffic, taking your time on foot is also a good idea.
“Allowing more time lets you focus on safety and to be aware of the surroundings, both of which are important to avoid falling in winter weather,” Henderson-Kalb said. “Walking more slowly will also help your reaction time to changes in traction.”
What happens if you do find yourself slipping?
* Anytime you are walking on possibly slick surfaces, keep your hands out of your coat pockets. This lowers your center of gravity while walking and increases balance. You can help break your fall with your hands free if you do start to slip, although this does increase the risk of a wrist injury.
* If you fall backwards, quickly tuck your head forward, chin to chest. Try to extend your arms away from your body and “slap” the ground with your palms and forearms. This maneuver will help prevent your head, wrists and elbows from hitting the ground.
* If you fall to the side, try to allow your forearm to make contact with the ground first, not your hand. Lift your head to the opposite shoulder and continue to roll.
* If you fall forward, try to roll to one side, and follow the same procedure as if you were falling to the side.
If you do fall, the first thing to do is assess yourself for injuries. If you have struck your head or you think you have broken a bone, attempt to get help before moving. If you think you are uninjured, go ahead and try to get up.
“If you have not hit your head, it is helpful to get off the cold surface rather than staying on it,” Henderson-Kalb said.
She recommends turning over onto your hands and knees. Take one foot and place it between your hands, then bring the other foot between your hands. Trying to keep feet shoulder width apart, push yourself up from there.
The bottom line on walking in snowy and icy conditions is be prepared, be aware and be careful.