When the Weather and Walkways are Treacherous -- Slow and Steady Are the Way to Go

New York—February 1, 2011 

Snow storms and freezing temperatures have turned many streets into obstacle courses. As if sky-high piles of snow weren’t bad enough, slippery slush and patches of ice litter streets and sidewalks, presenting hazardous conditions that could lead to a fall if people aren’t careful.

"An invisible patch of ice is an accident waiting to happen," says Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, an orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan who has seen his share of injuries from a fall. It happened to 45-year-old Kenny Fields of Wantagh, Long Island. Last year, he fell in a parking lot and fractured three ribs. He had slipped on a patch of ice between two parked cars and was out of work for a month.

Dr. Westrich says everyone should exercise caution when the streets turn slippery this time of year. "People often forget how dangerous a fall can be, especially when they’re in a hurry to get somewhere. Even if much of the snow and ice are removed, there are always some slippery surfaces to watch out for."

Dr. Westrich offers these safety tips:

  • Wear shoes or boots that provide traction on snow and ice, such as those with rubber and neoprene composite soles. Avoid plastic and leather soles, smooth-soled shoes and, of course, high heels.
  • Walk at a safe pace. Give yourself enough time to get to your destination without rushing.
  • When given no choice but to walk on ice, take short steps or shuffle for stability.
  • Look where you're going. Watch for icy patches, especially on the north side, that remain even if the sidewalk or parking lot has been cleared of most snow and ice. Areas that do not get sufficient direct sunlight, and spaces where snow accumulates (such as near roadside curbs or between parked cars) remain icy long after the rest has melted or has been removed.
  • Footwear should keep feet dry, warm and comfortable and provide good support.
  • Walk in designated walkways as much as possible. Don't take shortcuts or try to jump over piles of snow.
  • Keep your field of vision clear. Hats should not cover your eyes. You should be able to close your coat sufficiently so you can easily see where you are going.
  • Make sure belts and scarves don't drag on or near the ground where they can cause you to trip.
  • Use a cane or walking stick to help stabilize your balance if you need to.
  • Snow and ice accumulate on stairways. Always use hand railings. Look where you're stepping and place feet firmly on each step.
  • When you’re in your car, try to park where it is clear of snow and ice.
  • Use special care when entering and exiting vehicles. If necessary, use the car for support.
  • Do not overload yourself with packages. Anything that throws your balance off increases the risk of falling. Make several trips to the car to unload it, rather than carrying everything at once.
  • Older people, who at particular risk of a debilitating fracture, should try to keep driving to daylight hours so that they are able to see patches of ice on streets and in parking lots.
  • Remember that some medications, like allergy/cold medicines, certain painkillers, and others can make you groggy or dizzy, reducing your ability to maintain your balance on slippery surfaces.
  • Be especially watchful for "black ice" - that almost invisible sheet of ice that forms after roadways thaw and refreeze. The road, sidewalk, or parking lot may look like they are simply wet, when in fact the thin ice on the surface is extremely slick.
  • When entering buildings, remove snow and water from footwear to prevent wet slippery conditions indoors.

At Home:

  • Keep walkways free of obstacles, such as snow shovels, other outdoor tools, sleds and other toys.
  • Provide sturdy handrails on all stairways to porches or doorways.
  • Spread a layer of sand, salt, gravel, cat litter, etc. to provide extra traction on the ice, and to promote melting.

About Hospital for Special Surgery
Founded in 1863, Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) is a world leader in orthopedics, rheumatology and rehabilitation. HSS is nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics, No. 3 in rheumatology, and No. 16 in neurology by U.S.News & World Report (2010-11), and has received Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. From 2007 to 2011, HSS has been a recipient of the HealthGrades Joint Replacement Excellence Award. A member of the NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System and an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS provides orthopedic and rheumatologic patient care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center. All Hospital for Special Surgery medical staff are on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College. The hospital's research division is internationally recognized as a leader in the investigation of musculoskeletal and autoimmune diseases. Hospital for Special Surgery is located in New York City and online at http://www.hss.edu/.

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