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Snow Bias

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 29, 2016
By George Melchior

Does the following scenario sound familiar? It’s February, air and ground temperatures are below freezing and the barometer is dropping fast. As a storm approaches, you gather your crew, ready your equipment, and pretreat your lots and walkways with anti-icing chemical. Then, it’s game time. You’re in the thick of it - pushing, plowing and blowing snow for hours on end before finishing the job with an application of salt or other deicing chemical. 

That was a common scenario over the last couple of years, when snowfall was well above average across much of the nation. In fact, it was so common that many contractors enjoyed record profits despite high costs of gas and materials, while property owners felt the squeeze on their operating budgets. More importantly, as a result of those countless hours of preparation, plowing and treatment, people visiting the properties you cleared and treated were relatively safe from slipping, falling and injuring themselves. But what happens when there is no snow to plow? If you’re a snow contractor who gets paid by the inch or by the storm, where do you find profit? If you’re a property owner, are you taking this opportunity to be thrifty and save money? If there’s no snow, are your properties safe?

Letting your guard down
That last question reminds me of a story a friend shared with me about how her husband slipped and fell on untreated ice in the parking lot of a big-box retailer. Apparently, neither her husband nor the property owner anticipated the presence of ice given the mild winter. So the owner didn’t treat the area, and the husband wasn’t watching for ice when he was walking. That mindset is an example of snow bias — the heavily skewed association of snow management with safe premises. Owners and contractors who suffer from snow bias forget the cardinal rule of wintertime premises liability: Ice is dangerous.

As a facilities manager and premises liability consultant in New England, I am well attuned to the financial impacts of snow bias. To be clear, financial impacts are more than just operating budgets and profits. Financial impacts also include indirect hits to the balance sheet, such as lost time from employee injury, or a negligence claim from a slip-and-fall-related personal injury. Those liabilities can have secondary effects, such as legal fees or insurance premium increases. A snow bias makes owners and contractors susceptible to these financial liabilities. 

To illustrate snow bias, I graphed the annual tally of ice-related slip-and-fall claims I’ve encountered, both as a facilities manager and consultant, with the annual snowfall for the respective years. As Chart 1 (below) demonstrates, the number of claims tends to increase when annual snowfall is relatively low. This inverse relationship suggests that when it comes to pedestrian safety, we treat our properties differently during mild winters than we do during winters of high amounts of snowfall, regardless of the inherent dangers of the formation of ice on walking surfaces. 
Chart 1
The number of claims tends to increase when annual snowfall is relatively low. This inverse relationship suggests that when it comes to pedestrian safety, we treat our properties differently during mild winters. 

For ice to form on a surface, temperatures must be below freezing, and moisture must be present. A mild winter is still winter, which means air and ground temperatures will drop below the freezing point. Additionally, there will be precipitation, albeit more likely in the form of rain and fog. The challenge of mild winters is to know when the moisture and freezing temperatures will occur simultaneously without the obvious trigger of snowfall. Chart 2 (below) illustrates a five-day period of weather experienced in northern New England this past winter. Despite four precipitation events during the week, the only region-wide response observed was the time leading up to and during the storm event on Thursday evening. Yet, all four events led to ice formation. 

Chart 2 - Precipitation

This illustration of a five-day period of weather in northern New England shows that despite four precipitation events, the only region-wide response observed was the time leading up to and during the storm event late Thursday. Yet, all four events led to the formation of ice.  

During winters of heavy snowfall, this graph would still show precipitation events throughout the week, but they would be snow events. During heavy snowfall winters, we are, by nature of snowstorm response, treating, inspecting and making safe the property at a higher frequency than we would if there was no snow. As a consequence of that higher frequency of inspection and treatment, property owners experience a lower instance of ice formation and associated slip and falls. In other words, snow triggers owners and contractors to make properties safe though ice poses the greatest risk of slip-and-fall injury.

Paying the price for bias
Chart 3 (below), developed by the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL), illustrates the ramifications of snow bias in mild winters. The chart shows the 2012 and 2013 winters, two of the mildest in recent history for the northern New England area. Yet, according to the MDOL, those winters yielded a large number of ice-related slip-and-fall injuries, over 80% of which occurred without snowfall. 


This Maine Department of Labor chart shows the 2012-13 winter seasons, two of the mildest in recent history for northern New England. Yet, according to the MDOL, those winters yielded a large number of  ice-related slip-and-fall injuries, over 80% of which occurred without snowfall.

More importantly, what Chart 3 doesn’t show is the cost of those injuries to property owners and employers. According to MDOL and the industry’s leading insurance companies, the average ice-related slip-and-fall claim is $33,000; and if that claim is a worker’s compensation claim, it is $48,000. As a comparison, a review of over 60 annual snow and ice management contracts revealed the average contract value for a typical commercial property is approximately $27,000. That means that, on average, an ice-related slip-and-fall injury would cost more than the entire seasonal contract. Considering that liability, Chart 3 suggests that many property owners and contractors are feeling the financial consequences of snow bias in their winter operations from 2012-2013.

Getting rid of bias

When talking ice, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Property owners would do well to spend a few dollars more in their contracts for comprehensive ice management. However, ice management is more brains than brawn, which renders it a subtle, intangible service compared with the obvious, measurable effort of snow removal. In mild winters, where precipitation occurs in various forms, the key to effective ice management is surveillance. 

Surveillance might sound like inspection, but it is more than that. Surveillance requires an understanding of the inter-relationship of weather characteristics; knowledge of preventive and corrective measures; and an intimate familiarity with the property, including knowledge of where moisture tends to accumulate. 

Ice management is much more of a knowledge-based service supported by targeted, tactical chemical application. In business parlance, it is more commensurate with a professional service than a labor-intensive trade. However, to overcome snow bias, savvy contractors must effectively communicate the value proposition of this service to their clients in the same way that lawyers, engineers, and accountants compel clients to see the value of their billable hours. 

A shift in investment
As stated earlier, one slip-and-fall claim comes with heavy financial liability, so the value proposition of preventing that claim is clear. What may not be clear are the means and methods of prevention. As a service provider, a contractor will have to demonstrate the specifics of surveillance and treatment. Though material costs won’t be as high as with snow management, the time investment will be significantly higher. So, a contractor’s pricing focus will shift from a billable rate built on material and labor cost, to a composite billable rate that captures the value of knowledge application for risk mitigation.

Snow management is an important winter service without question. However, the industry’s heavy bias toward snow management has diverted property owners’ attention away from ice - winter’s greatest threat to safety. The consequence of this snow bias is increased financial liability to owners and contractors during mild winters. However, implementation of an affirmative ice surveillance and management protocol, exclusive of snow removal, can reduce this financial liability. And, for contractors who provide ice management services, the reward will be a steady, predictable winter income regardless of the amount of snowfall in the season.  

George Melchior, ASM, is a registered architect and professional engineer and owns GVM Consulting, based in Portsmouth, NH. Contact him at
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