The calm before the storm

Features - Insurance/Liability

Preseason site inspections are a critical exercise to protect yourself from a variety of dangers.

September 24, 2013

Summer goes by so fast. Soon it will be that time of year again, time to begin thinking about preparing for another snow plowing season. Rather than waiting until the rush of the first snowfall, this is a good time to reflect on last year’s “leaning experiences” and how to incorporate this to be more productive this year and proactively act to avoid and manage liability pitfalls.

Ideally the perfect site is one with the drains and the low elevation around the perimeter where melting snow can drain harmlessly off the site. For those who do not have the ideal site, pushing snow to the perimeter of the site can lead to certain issues when that snow melts and the snow melt drains back across the parking lot to the drains which are located at the low areas. But there are some things you can do.

Plan of attack

Much of what snow and ice management professionals do is repetitive from year to year. Things change and your operations can be improved. Since a lot can happen in a few months, one of the ways of streamlining your operations and reducing your potential liability is to identify (and learn from) as much as possible about the sites you are hired to service and how those sites affect your operations.

As part of your snow response plan for any given site, one of the things to look at is maximizing the efficiency of the plowing effort. Another is how that work can affect your liability. Thinking through as many of the possible winter weather scenarios may be helpful. Different types of snowstorms and snow conditions have an effect on what you have to address. This is governed in large part by the weather. It’s not just moving the snow. It’s how and where the snow is stored and the conditions that affect that snow once it’s moved.

One method is to use a map to identify the basics of what is included and how to address them. Maps are a good way to look at the big picture and identify obstacles, drain locations, plowing proprieties and snow storage locations. Maps can also be used as part of a risk management program. A map of each account allows the snow removal professional to be proactive and document conditions on the site that may be the owner/property manager’s responsibility. Aerial photography of each site is readily available on the Internet from Google Maps or Bing. These can be analyzed for obvious site drainage issues. This mapping also provides a good method of documenting decisions made by the owner/property manager.

Liability control
Your liability may be affected by site issues, but it is not your job to correct them. Identifying and bringing these deficiencies to the attention of the property manager should be considered so as place the liability where it properly belongs. Here is another benefit of a preseason walkthrough of the site with the owner/property manager.

A preseason walk-through is the opportunity to put the property manager on notice of the issues and take photographs of the problem areas so that it can be coordinated along with the terms of your contract. The benefit of doing a comprehensive preseason site inspection is you can identify these issues and hopefully have them corrected before the first storm. If not, you have put the property manager on notice about the issues which may help form another line of defense in the case of the slip-and-fall where you’re brought into the case. Where the owner/property manager directs how the snow is to be moved and where it can be stored should be clearly documented, with any concerns identified.

Another reason for considering annual site inspections is that while it may not look like much, the site may have changed since the last time you were there. Where an owner/property manager has to cut a trench through a parking lot for whatever reason, the site drainage may change. It may seem like a small issue, but the patch area now causes changes to the drainage which may affect your work and liability.


Check list

Not every obstacle, obstruction or hazard is obvious at first glance. Julius Pereira III provides some common design and maintenance issues you need to be aware of when reviewing your clients’ sites prior to the start of the winter snow season.

  • How the buildings and sites drain in the winter has not been thought through or even addressed by many facility designers. Here are some examples you may wish to consider in planning your winter work. These are all conditions that are the O/PM’s responsibility, but affect your liability. They should all be mapped and photographed.
  • Canopies are roof structures to protect pedestrian walking areas and typically represent a source of uncontrolled drainage. Similar to canopies are awnings. These are partial covers over an entrance where uncontrolled drainage typically discharges directly on to the pedestrian sidewalk.
  • Balconies are another potential source of drainage issues. They typically do not have gutters or means of controlling the drainage. When this drainage discharge falls on to a sidewalk and refreezes, it creates a pedestrian hazard, related to winter property maintenance.
  • Mansard type roofs are another potential design issue. Where these roofs do not have a means of controlling the drainage, they represent a liability concern and a code issue.
  • Roof drainage that has leaked into a wall cavity may present an unexpected source of roof drainage that can affect your liability when it exits the wall over a pedestrian walkway/exit.
  • Another building component that represents a source of uncontrolled drainage, are leaders that discharge directly onto pedestrian sidewalk.
  • A variation on this is where the drainage system discharges through the curb face. While typically not a problem for vehicles, this condition frequently seems to regularly happen near a marked pedestrian cross walk, where the drainage discharge presents a hazard for pedestrians.
  • Another maintenance issue that should be addressed with the O/PM are broken and improperly drainage components such as gutters. Damaged gutters may leak. This is a liability concern if the drainage falls on a pedestrian walkway.
  • Clogged drainage components represent another source of drainage issues. Gutters and leaders that are clogged with leaves and debris will cause the roof drainage to flow in manner not intended. Here again, this is a liability concern if the drainage falls on a pedestrian walkway.
  • Architectural lighting in the pavement, with its glass cover, presents a whole different set of concerns for the snow removal professional. Not just a potential as a slipping hazard, but also problems due to damage and leakage.
  • Sidewalks slabs that are displaced and or pond water are another source of potential liability. The displacement may cause areas of ponding.
  • Metal site components such as utility and manhole covers and grates represent potential slipping hazards during the winter months with snow and ice present.
  • All this and we have not gotten to the parking lot yet.
  • Wheel stops are still used in some parking lots. They are not only an impediment to efficient snow removal, they are a drainage issue.
  • Depressions and bird baths seem common enough in asphalt parking lots. They were not intended as part of the site drainage plan. When ice that forms they become a liability concern.

Pedestrians can rarely sue for active and ongoing snow conditions. In some jurisdiction, they even be may be legally precluded from this. Typically pedestrians do not slip on the water resulting from drainage of melting snow. A more typical scenario is a slip-and-fall due to melt and refreeze. Anywhere melting snow can drain, collect and refreeze presents a problem for pedestrians. Some of the physical conditions may not be your responsibility. They should be identified and addressed with the owner/property manager.

Snow Storage
Since the job snow professionals are hired for is to remove the snow from a particular site to allow the owner/property manager to run their business, the first obvious question in addressing this work is, “What to do with the snow?” Most owner/property managers simply want the snow cleared from the parking lot to allow customers to come to the property. They rely on the professional snow removal contractor to do that in an efficient and cost-effective manner with the resulting conditions being safe for their business. Is there enough room to store snow on the site?

Another issue is what happens to the snow after it’s removed from the parking lot and sidewalks. This is a subject that many times gets little thought. In a recent investigation, after moving snow near to some site drains at the low elevation of the parking lot, the owner/property manager, in an effort to free up the parking spaces, directed the snow removal contractor to locate the snow at the perimeter of the site, a higher elevation next to a municipal sidewalk. Because of a lack of follow-up, the resulting fall due to melt and refreeze was completely foreseeable.

While no single strategy will prevent the snow and ice management professional from being involved in a claim, getting the owner/property manager to sign off on the recommended or directed storage location may assist in defending a liability claim, should someone be injured due to the conditions.

For those of you have been following my column, you may recognize a couple of reoccurring issues that affect your liability: notably drainage and site conditions. The way a site naturally drains should be taken into account when locating snow storage areas.

As pointed out by a trial judge in claim I was consulted on several years ago, snow melts. While simplistic, it is a true statement. Unfortunately the judge’s observation missed the point this drainage will inevitably refreeze with subsequent winter weather conditions. More importantly, where this occurs on a foreseeable pedestrian walking surface, who is responsible for the resulting slippery conditions? This scenario is exactly the cause of many winter slips and falls. This is also exactly why knowing the site drainage and where potential problem areas are is so important.

The positive side is the site drainage is readily foreseeable. Simply going out to the site after a rain will provide solid indicators of how the existing site is draining, where water collects and where icing problems are likely to occur. As addressed in some of my earlier columns, since some of the drainage starts at the roof, this is one area where snow removal profession should be looking at to identify potential risk to their business.


Expert Advice

Preseason check lists help the contractor AND the customer. Here you can get very detailed and outline ambiguities in the scope of work. If you walk the site with the customer and note idiosyncrasies of that particular site – and then you and the customer sign off on what is to be done, it eliminates controversy when a difference of opinion arises. Plus, it satisfies one of the documentation protocols in the written industry standards.

When snow and ice management contractors are assessing a site, don’t just look at the pavement to see if it is smooth and easy to plow. Look for what I like to call the “wake-up calls.” Manhole covers sticking up an inch or two create havoc on a snowplow or snow pusher. Also, the plow truck operator can end up kissing the steering wheel and losing some teeth when the truck stops dead as a result of such obstructions. And, plow truck operators simply must wear seatbelts when plowing snow -- a lesson to be reinforced during preseason training.

Likewise, take copious notes of potential on-site obstructions. These include fire hydrants, curbs, guardrails, steps and stairs, cart corrals, and trees. Damaging these items can be expensive and dangerous.

— JOHN ALLIN, John Allin Consulting


Risk management consultant Julius Pereira III owns Pereira Consulting in Chadds Ford, Pa. He is a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.