When the Weather... and Walkways are Treacherous-Tips for Fall Prevention on Slippery Streets
(New York, N.Y. January 20, 2004). Over a period of one week last winter, Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, an orthopedic surgeon with offices at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and in Fresh Meadows, Queens, operated on four people who fell on ice and sustained fractures. "Everyone should exercise caution when the streets turn slippery this time of year. Falls can lead to sprains, broken bones and can even be fatal. But people often forget how dangerous slipping and falling can be," says Dr. Westrich, who has seen hundreds of patients with broken bones resulting from a fall.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries to older people in the United States. Each year, more than 11 million people over 65 fall--one out of every three senior citizens, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
No matter how well snow and ice are removed from streets and sidewalks, people will encounter some slippery surfaces when walking outdoors in the winter. It is important to be aware of the dangers and use caution. 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.
- One of the main ways to help prevent falling is to look where you are going! Watch for icy patches, especially on the north side, that remain even if the walkway 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. Taking shortcuts over piles of snow and areas where snow and ice removal is not feasible can be hazardous.
- Keep your field of vision clear. Wear hats that do not cover the eyes. Coats should be able to close 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 tripping.
- Use a cane or walking stick to help stabilize your balance if you need to.
- Snow or ice accumulates on stairways. Always use hand railings. Look where you are stepping. Place feet firmly on each step.
- When you're out 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 vehicle for support.
- Do not overload yourself with packages. Anything that throws your balance off can increase 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. Check with your doctor to see if there are alternative medications you could use that don't have these effects. Whether or not this is a possibility, use extra caution in icy conditions.
- 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 given no choice but to walk on ice, take short steps or shuffle for stability.
- When entering buildings, remove snow and water from footwear to prevent wet slippery conditions indoors.
- 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.