Slippery sidewalks a struggle in Hamilton and salt is hard to find

Hamiltonians are struggling with the buildup of ice on sidewalks.

By Clare Bonnyman, CBC News Posted: Dec 21, 2016 12:10 PM ET

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James St. N was covered in ice after five days of Cold Alerts in Hamilton, making for a dangerous coffee run. (Rick Hughes/CBC)

A week of snow, rain and cold alerts has turned many areas of Hamilton into a skating rink, making getting-around difficult — and even dangerous— for many in the city.

The slick conditions are affecting mail carriers, big-box stores, hospitals, pedestrians and cyclists. With more freeze-and-thaw weather in the forecast, the problems may very well continue into 2017.

And to top it all off, we’re running out of salt.

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A city worker spreads salt onto a snowy sidewalk near Ferguson Avenue. (John Rieti/CBC)

Salt-Ageddon

While the city’s stockpile of salt remains high, the shelves in stores are bare for everyone else looking to use it on residential or commercial properties.

While the city takes care of some “public” sidewalks outside if libraries, parks and rec centres,and in some commercial areas, the bulk of city sidewalks are the responsibility of property owners.

When it comes to homeowners and landlords, it’s up to them to clear sidewalks and paths within 24-hours of snowfall.

The City of Hamilton reports that since December 12,  it has received 811 complaints about snow and ice on private sidewalks across the city.

And this year, there’s just not enough salt.

‘Weather impacts how we all get around. It’s certainly higher than normal.’– Michael Sanderson, Chief, Hamilton Paramedic Service

Big-box stores have been cleared of their stock, or are running out quickly. People are racing to grab what they can, and stores are placing emergency orders.

Of the three Home Depot’s in Hamilton, one was completely out of salt at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, and had ordered more to arrive in the afternoon. The other two had a small supply but were running out fast.

One store associate said that two skids were emptied within 40 minutes of the store opening. Another said people are buying 5-10 bags at a time. Both suggested to get there fast, or don’t bother coming.

Real risk

The need for salt and sand is real, and the issue has affected the city’s healthcare centres, with an increased rate of people slipping and falling just about everywhere.

For more than eight hours this weekend, Hamilton ambulances were too tied up to respond to calls, resulting in a Code Zero citywide on Saturday evening, according to Hamilton Paramedic Service Chief Michael Sanderson.

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Approximately 27 per cent of calls this weekend to Hamilton Paramedics were related to falls or musculoskeletal injuries. (CBC)

Hamilton Paramedics reported responding to 327 calls over 24 hours, starting Saturday at 8 a.m. A 67 per cent increase over their average of 196 calls during that time period.

Seventeen per cent of those calls were related to falls or musculo-skeletal injuries, like fractures.

“Weather impacts how we all get around,” said Sanderson. “It’s certainly higher than normal.”

And the proof is out your window, with people slipping and sliding up and down the streets, regardless of winter boots. It’s worse still for people who are out walking every day.

Working on thin ice

Canada Post is issuing an official message, asking people to please shovel and salt their walkways.

“We are in an all out blitz,” said Jon Hamilton, spokesperson for Canada Post.

Mail carriers are delivering a million parcels a day across the country, which means they are encountering driveways, walks and stairs that are still icy and covered in snow.

“That’s not just a safety risk for our employees, but for any holiday visitors,” said Hamilton.

In the days of online shopping and long-distance gift-giving, mail carriers still reserve the right to refuse to walk up if they feel it’s too dangerous. But Hamilton said they’re really too focused on “delivering the holidays” right now, and many just proceed with caution.

“We have had 10 of our employees slip and get hurt, to the point where they had to report their injuries this Christmas,” he said.

With an extra 2,500 employees this year doing deliveries for Canada Post, there’s a higher risk of falls and higher stakes too.

“We’ve only got about 48 hours to really get all those Christmas presents to Canadians and under the trees,” said Hamilton.

“If you’ve ever tried to trudge through a mall parking lot that hasn’t been cleared of snow, you know how dangerous that is. Our people are out in that all day.”

City Slippers

For the average commuter too, unsafe paths have become risky to travel on, especially on the sidewalks with the highest volume.

“I, like everyone I’m sure, am not a fan, particularly downtown,” said Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr.

Like his constituents, Farr often notifies the city himself of streets and sidewalks that need maintenance. But the community is speaking out so far this winter, and he has heard from six constituents about unsafe or unplowed sidewalks.

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“Often I’ll spot it myself and make my requests to the proper staff but, now and again I’ll get calls or tweets,” he said.

Also an issue over the past week has been the condition of bike lanes and what kind of priority the city is giving those.

More wheels more problems

Benita Van Miltenburg, Chair of the Advocacy Committee for Cycle Hamilton, is one of those people. She believes that the efficient plowing of roads, but not always bike lanes, is indicative of a bigger issue.

“It suggests that some people’s commutes, some people’s transportation, and thus some people’s lives, are ultimately valued over others,” she said. “It doesn’t suggest that the city is committed to supporting cyclists in their decision to ride.”

Van Miltenburg and other members of Cycle Hamilton have been using the hashtag #snowybikelanes, to notify the City when lanes are not cleared, or too icy to travel on. A snowy lane forces cyclists into traffic, and an icy lane can lead to slips and accidents on their own.

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“Overall we’re seeing more calls for better clearing of bike lanes, than we’re seeing support for the lanes being cleared,” said Van Miltenburg.

Still, Farr insists the city is doing a much better job this year than in the past six years he’s been in office. Especially considering this year’s fluctuating temperatures, and quick onset of cold alerts.

‘Snow is one thing, ice is another thing altogether, and it’s much uglier,” said Farr. “but if there’s an icy sidewalk that’s not being addressed, we’ll be happy to assist.”

If citizens come across an icy sidewalk or unplowed bike lane, they are asked to contact the city, at 905-546-2489, or reach out to their councillor. Public property will be handled by the city, and the city’s By-Law department can assist in reaching out to private property owners.

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