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The winter of 2020 is going to be unlike other winters before it. And if the rest of 2020 has shown us anything, it’s this: plan for the worst.

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US should anticipate “warmer, drier conditions across the southern tier of the U.S., and cooler, wetter conditions in the North, thanks in part to an ongoing La Nina” during the winter of 2020-21. In Canada, the western provinces can expect cooler than normal temperatures, while the eastern provinces can expect temperatures higher than normal.

The probability of warmer temperatures combined with increased wet weather could suggest increased likelihood for rain rather than snow. But because snow events cannot be accurately predicted more than a week or so before the event, it’s important to stay alert and prepare.

Warmer doesn’t always mean warmer
Just because temperatures are forecast to be higher than normal doesn’t negate the potential for freezing temperatures. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, sees January temperatures that range from lows of 19 F (-7 C) to highs of 34 F (1 C). Even if temperatures average a degree or two higher, there will still be plenty of opportunity for freezing temperatures and the risks that go along with them, including icy and snowy conditions.

And then there’s COVID
Reduced travel doesn't mean no risk. We could still see expanded lockdowns in the coming months due to COVID-19, which would reduce vehicular traffic. During the winter, especially with the potential for icy conditions, lower volume of cars on roads and highways is a good thing. But driving may still be required in the course of normal operations. And any driving in wintry conditions is risky, even if it’s just driving across town.

The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that the leading cause of occupational fatalities is vehicle-related crashes. To actively reduce motor vehicle crashes, it is important for businesses that require employees to drive as part of their job, to consider offering defensive driving courses. Employers pay significant costs associated with motor vehicle accidents such as:

  • Liability risks and legal expenses
  • Lost time and decreased productivity
  • Increased insurance
  • Workers’ compensation

To help drivers make better decisions when driving in inclement weather, investing in defensive driving education can help drivers arrive safely at their destination. By equipping employees with safe driving tips and know how, companies can take positive steps in decreasing motor vehicle accidents and traffic incidents, reducing insurance premiums, minimizing potential liability risks, and protecting business assets.

Let’s not forget about some hidden road risks, like black ice. Once it snows or rains in freezing conditions, black ice can form in shady areas and under bridges or overpasses. It gets its name from its highly transparent nature allowing the black road to be seen below the ice. It looks invisible on pavement and is almost impossible to see.

When faced with any of these road conditions, slowing down lessens the risks of an accident but, if a vehicle can’t get the needed grip on the road and a mishap occurs, traveling at a slower speed could also reduce overall damage.

If temperatures remain warm enough to keep snow away, rain still contributes to a challenging drive. It impairs vision and reduces traction on tires. Drivers can even lose power steering and become hydro locked. Remember to slow down, be cautious, use emergency flashers when necessary, and be prepared to get off the road until conditions improve. And remember that fewer vehicles on the road doesn’t eliminate risk. (Read our article, Cautious not Careless, or our recent Environmental Risk Bulletin - Driving in Adverse Conditions.)


Our risk engineers have compiled a number of useful tools to help prepare for the cold days ahead.

Empty offices full of risk
With most employees working remotely, many offices remain closed or operating at much lower occupancy. For those that are closed, care must be taken to ensure the premises are adequately protected. Consider:

  • HVAC systems
    • Make sure to drain outside unprotected pipes or adjust the antifreeze concentration in exposed HVAC systems.
    • Make sure all heating systems are thoroughly checked before the start of the heating season. This includes boilers and their associated steam lines, heaters, heat tracing, etc.
  • Fire protection systems
    • Make sure all fire protection systems are prepared for winter: drain water from dry systems, test antifreeze to insure proper concentration, confirm heater and low temperature alarm are working on the fire pump room and suction tank, etc.
    • Mark the location of all fire hydrants on site and clear them following any significant snowfall.
  • General Precautions
    • Alarms and shut-off valves (like those made by WINT, part of the AXA XL Construction Ecosystem) can be installed in existing structures to help protect against water damage due to burst pipes.
    • Ensure sidewalks and parking lots are cleared of snow and ice, just as if the building were fully occupied.
    • Clear snow from roofs, especially wet, heavy snow to avoid structural damage. What if the snowfall weight exceeds the roof design load? To avoid a building collapse, plan ahead a predetermined snow depth to trigger snow removal. This can be less than 1 ft (30 cm) in regions where buildings are not designed for snow load accumulation.
    • Maintain 24-hour security presence at closed offices, if practical. If not, the site should be inspected thoroughly on a regular basis.

Our risk engineers have compiled a number of useful tools to help prepare for the cold days ahead. Download AXA XL Risk Consulting’s Winter Weather Preparation Checklist. Or if involved in construction, check out Severe Storm Preparedness Guide for Construction Sites.

Winter risks for West, Southwest and Central: Drought and Wildfire 
In addition to the more typical winter risks, the La Nina weather pattern will also contribute to worsening and expanding drought conditions through the southwest and into the central United States. With those drought conditions there is also a risk of wildfire during the winter months.

Here are a few key recommendations known as a "coupled approach" to support building survival and reduce your wildfire risks:

  1. Create a defensible space: Defensible space is where landscaping vegetation is carefully planned, selected and located on the property, as well as routinely maintained.
  2. Building materials: If new construction, make a careful selection of non-combustible construction materials. If this is an existing location, review building and roof conditions, roof debris, including gutters, vents, skylights any potential gaps or openings that could allow embers or radiant heat to enter.
  3. Check water supply: The availability of a reliable water supply is critical and should be evaluated frequently, including proximity to public hydrants and the possible installation of private site yard hydrants. The overtaxing of city supplies was a significant factor during the 2018 fire season. Drought conditions could make this worse.
  4. Pre-emergency planning: This should include a wildland preparedness checklist, including materials that should be maintained on hand, how to mitigate HVAC smoke intrusion, critical documents that may need to be removed and what to do after the fire to name a few.
  5. Stay informed: Both FEMA and NFPA provide a wide range of wildfire loss prevention resources to keep you updated on the latest wildfire threats across the US. Also, many states such as Colorado, Arizona and Texas (where drought conditions will be worse) have developed on-line portals that businesses and residents can utilize to assess the risk to their site. Check your local state website for additional wildfire tools.

Read more guidance from our risk consulting team in “Preparing industrial facilities for the far-reaching effects of wildfires” and “Sounding the alarm: Wildfire exposure and prevention in construction.”

Easy access to more resources
AXA XL has a variety of downloadable resources to help businesses prepare to deal with winter’s wrath:

For additional information on preventing winter-related losses, contact AXA XL Risk Consulting.

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Global Asset Protection Services, LLC, and its affiliates (“AXA XL Risk Consulting”) provides risk assessment reports and other loss prevention services, as requested. This document shall not be construed as indicating the existence or availability under any policy of coverage for any particular type of loss or damage. AXA XL Risk. We specifically disclaim any warranty or representation that compliance with any advice or recommendation in any publication will make a facility or operation safe or healthful, or put it in compliance with any standard, code, law, rule or regulation. Save where expressly agreed in writing, AXA XL Risk Consulting and its related and affiliated companies disclaim all liability for loss or damage suffered by any party arising out of or in connection with this publication, including indirect or consequential loss or damage, howsoever arising. Any party who chooses to rely in any way on the contents of this document does so at their own risk.

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In the US, the AXA XL insurance companies are: AXA Insurance Company, Catlin Insurance Company, Inc., Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Specialty Insurance Company and T.H.E. Insurance Company. In Canada, coverages are underwritten by XL Specialty Insurance Company - Canadian Branch and AXA Insurance Company - Canadian branch. Coverages may also be underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003. Coverages underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003 are placed on behalf of the member of Syndicate #2003 by Catlin Canada Inc. Lloyd’s ratings are independent of AXA XL.
US domiciled insurance policies can be written by the following AXA XL surplus lines insurers: XL Catlin Insurance Company UK Limited, Syndicates managed by Catlin Underwriting Agencies Limited and Indian Harbor Insurance Company. Enquires from US residents should be directed to a local insurance agent or broker permitted to write business in the relevant state.