Winter Weather: Ice-Related Hazards

  • Published
  • By By Greg Chadwick, Air Force Materiel Command Health & Wellness Team
  • Air Force Materiel Command

Cold weather brings many risks and hazards with it. Sleet and snow can create a higher risk of car accidents and injuries from slipping and falling. Ice storms can damage utility lines causing power outages. Temperatures below freezing can cause pipes in your home to leak due to expanded, frozen water within.

Cold weather can be dangerous, or even deadly. The best time to prepare for severe winter weather is now, before temperatures drop significantly and staying safe and warm becomes a challenge.

How to Stay Safe in an Ice Storm

An ice storm is a freezing rain event where a significant, possibly damaging, accumulation of greater than 0.25 inches of ice occurs. Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times and can add 500 pounds of extra weight to power lines. A heavy accumulation of ice can topple power and telephone lines, broadcasting towers, and trees.

Unlike snowstorms where in most cases the snow can be plowed in hours or a day, the damaging effects of ice storms can last for days. Travel may be extremely difficult and dangerous due to ice covered roads, downed trees, and power lines.

When an ice storm and/or significant icing is forecast, you should prepare ahead of the storm.

  • -Stock up on non-perishable food and water.
  • -Make sure flashlights and battery-powered radios are working.
  • -Fill up your gas tank to keep your car’s fuel line from freezing.
  • -Charge your cell phone.


It is very common to lose power during an ice storm. If you lose power, you should unplug your electronics to avoid damage from a power surge once the power comes back on. If your heating source requires electricity to function and the power goes out, dress in warm layers. Close doors to rooms that you are not using to keep heat in one area. Put towels or rags under the door of the room you are staying in to keep it warmer. Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed to help keep the food cold. If you use an emergency heater, follow the instructions paying careful attention to proper ventilation.

Preventing Frozen Pipes

Cold weather can cause serious plumbing problems if you don’t take proper precautions. Pipes, whether plastic or cooper, can burst if the water within them freezes, leading to very costly repairs.

When the temperature drops below freezing, you should protect indoor sink pipes that are against exterior walls by opening kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow indoor heat to circulate. During severe cold temperatures, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe – even at a trickle- helps prevent pipes from freezing.

Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.

If pipes freeze, use the master shut-off valve to cut the water flow to the building. The shut-off valve can be indoors or outdoors, usually in a basement, crawlspace or garage. Call a licensed plumber. Not all plumbing systems are the same. Attempting to thaw a frozen pipe without a professional plumber’s help or advice can lead to serious damages that are very expensive to repair.

Avoiding Winter Slips and Falls

With ice and snow comes slips and falls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 1 million U.S adults are injured due to slips and falls every year, with the injury rate increasing significantly as temperature decline. To decrease your risk of falling while walking on ice:

  • -Wear proper footwear. Footwear with rubber or neoprene composite soles provides better traction on ice and snow than leather or plastic.
  • -Take small steps. Small steps, almost side to side, help you maintain your center of gravity.
  • -Walk slowly. Be alert to the possibility that you could slip on an unseen patch of ice.
  • -Walk in designated areas. Avoid using shortcuts and self-made paths as these may be very icy and slippery.
  • -Many injuries occur when entering or exiting a vehicle. Be careful and hold onto your vehicle to help support yourself.
  • -Don’t be distracted. Put your cell phone away while walking and focus on where you’re going.


Driving on Icy Roads

One of the most dangerous winter weather conditions for drivers is ice. In 2020, there were 374 fatal crashes, and an estimated 25,000 injury crashes that occurred in wintry conditions according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When driving in wintry weather, slow down. It’s harder to control or stop your vehicle on a slick or snow-covered surface. When on the road, increase your following distance enough so that you’ll have plenty of time to stop for vehicles ahead of you.

As the outside temperature drops, so does tire inflation. Make sure each tire is filled to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure, which is in your owner’s manual and on a label located on the driver’s side door frame. It’s best to check the tires when they’re cold, meaning that they have not been driven on for at least three hours. Also inspect your tires at least once a month checking for any damage or conditions that may need attention. If you find tire damage, take your vehicle to a tire service professional. 

Winter Weather Warnings, Watches and Advisories

Winter weather related warnings, watches and advisories are issued by your local National Weather Service office. Here is what the weather alerts mean:

Winter Storm Warnings: Take Action

  • -Warnings are issued for a significant winter weather event including snow, ice, sleet or blowing snow or a combination of these hazards, Travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. Delay your travel plans until conditions improve.
  • -Ice Storm Warnings are usually issued for ice accumulation of around ¼ inch or more. This amount of ice accumulation will make travel dangerous or impossible and likely lead to snapped power lines and falling tree branches. Travel is strongly discouraged.


Winter Storm Watches: Be Prepared

  • -Watches are issued when conditions are favorable for a significant winter storm event (heavy sleet, heavy snow, ice storm, heavy snow and blowing snow or a combination of events.)


Winter Weather Advisories: Be Aware

  • -Advisories are issued when snow, blowing snow, ice, sleet, or a combination of these wintry elements is expected but conditions should not be hazardous enough to meeting warning criteria. Be prepared for winter driving conditions and possible travel difficulties.


For more information on how to protect yourself from winter weather, visit or contact your local Civilian Health Promotion Services team. Comprehensive information on cold weather safety can be found on the website