A checklist for preventing winter falls

The ice, snow and cold of wintertime are hazards, but with caution and preparation, people can stay safe and enjoy the winter season with a decreased risk of falls and injuries. This is vitally important for people with poor balance, but applies to everybody.

Keep clear pathways and remove tripping dangers. Keep walkways and hallways clear of clutter and debris and make sure there are no tangled extension cords or other hazards. Improving lighting, placing handrails on both sides of stairs, and using non-slip mats in hazardous areas are good preventative measures. Take time after snowstorms to shovel, salt paths, and sprinkle cat litter to melt ice.

Wear proper footwear that fits you. Indoor and outdoor shoes should have thin, non-slip soles with a bit of traction. Put away the flip-flops and sandals and move to closed-toed shoes for the winter. Focus on a snug yet comfortable fit that provides adequate ankle support. If pain or foot issues make shoe shopping difficult, talk to a podiatrist or orthotist who can recommend custom orthotics and medical-grade footwear.

Mobility aids improve safety. Canes and walkers need proper rubber tips at the bottom to prevent slipping. Replace tips that are worn out regularly, at least twice per year. Four-point canes and cleated crutch tips offer even better traction control. When using a walker outside, lift rather than pushing or dragging across icy or uneven surfaces to avoid loss of control. Losing your balance is a very difficult mistake to overcome in slippery conditions.

Balance and strength exercises help a lot. Core, hip, leg and ankle exercises improve stability, reaction times, and confidence. Try standing on one leg while brushing teeth, leaning side to side, marching in place, and using resistance bands. Tai chi is another great option, and is often provided by community centers for this reason. Doing a few minutes daily makes a difference over time

Ask physical therapists about assistive devices. In addition to aids like canes and walkers, options like handle attachments for public bathrooms, bathtub transfer benches, and reaching tools improve safety. They make completing everyday tasks less risky if you struggle with flexibility, range of motion, gripping things, or experience fatigue.

Use a lot of caution on sidewalks and in parking lots. While the primary responsibility falls on property owners and municipalities to promptly clear ice after winter storms, you cannot know how well it was done. Many neglect thorough salting and plowing of public pedestrian areas. Plan ahead and give yourself enough time so you don’t feel rushed. Step carefully and consider an alternative route if needed. Carry salt or kitty litter in your vehicle or bag.

Wear ice cleats or creepers if walking long distance. These slip onto footwear easily, adding metal spiky grips on the bottom to get a grip in ice. Some designs strap across the sole, while others fit more like rubber shoe covers. Having ice cleats can give people more stability navigating icy driveways, walkways, and building entrances. Remember to take them off before walking on someone’s carpet, though.

Make use of delivery services. Many grocery stores offer grocery delivery to designated parking spaces. Consider using these in bad weather to minimize the need to walk carrying heavy packages during the highest risk winter months. Many pharmacies also offer free home delivery for prescriptions, as do meal services geared to seniors. Take advantage of these conveniences all winter long.

The most slippery winter months don’t have to be your downfall. Remain vigilant when walking anywhere that hasn’t been properly cleared and de-iced, and use available tools to minimize risk. Above everything else, slow down and give yourself enough time so you never feel rushed.

Christian M. Hartley is a 40-year Alaska resident with over 25 years of public safety and public service experience. He is the City of Houston Fire Chief and also serves on many local and state workgroups, boards and commissions related to safety. He lives in Big Lake with his wife of 19 years and their three teenage sons.

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