Tips for navigating extreme weather and climate events already impacting workers
The health and safety risks of working outdoors couldn’t be more pronounced this summer, as much of Canada has been blanketed by wildfire smoke, triggering air quality warnings across the country. Between the wildfires, intense heat, and extreme weather events, there is no shortage of summer hazards facing outdoor workers.
"Information and communication play a crucial role in maintaining the safety of outdoor workers during the summer season," emphasizes Wendy Irwin, health and safety consultant at Bright HR. Irwin says safety leaders need to prioritize emergency preparedness and proactive measures to safeguard their workforce during the summer months.
Extended wildfire season
"Disseminating relevant information to employees is vital, especially during wildfire season," Irwin highlights. She underlines the adverse effects of smoke exposure, stating, "workers need to be aware of the symptoms of smoke-related issues such as nausea, dizziness, and fatigue."
Wildfire season started earlier than normal, with the first major outbreak happening in Alberta in May. Irwin stresses the importance of monitoring workers and educating them about identifying signs of smoke-related problems. She suggests measures like providing breaks, minimizing smoke exposure, and ensuring clean indoor air quality for both outdoor and indoor workers.
"When wildfires and evacuations become a reality, safety leaders have crucial responsibilities," asserts Irwin. She urges safety leaders to stay updated on the wildfire situation and use reliable sources of information, mentioning, "we can utilize resources like the Canadian website for air quality health index."
Drawing from her experience in wildfire-prone Alberta, Irwin recommends using tools such as the ‘smokefire.ca’ app to track and monitor smoke levels. She says employers need to support and assist employees affected by evacuation orders, acknowledging that businesses may temporarily lose part of their workforce. "Having contingency plans and support systems in place is crucial during such crises," says Irwin.
"Severe storms, including lightning strikes, are a significant concern for outdoor workers," Irwin warns. She points to changing climate patterns and the increased occurrence of severe storms, emphasizing, "lightning strikes are becoming more prevalent from June to August."
Irwin advises employers to stay vigilant by keeping an eye on weather warnings and educating workers about the risks associated with lightning. It’s important to create a culture of vigilance, where workers are encouraged to observe the sky, follow their supervisors' instructions, and prioritize personal safety. "Lightning should never be underestimated, as it poses a greater threat than hail, wind, rain, and tornadoes combined," claims Irwin.
"Preparedness and effective communication are crucial when dealing with extreme weather,” Irwin emphasizes, advising safety leaders maintain an emergency response plan that considers all potential scenarios, drawing from past occurrences and regional hazards.
Reflecting on her experience during the 2013 flood in Calgary, Irwin remembers how important it was to have evacuation plans and provisions in place. She encourages safety leaders convey potential risks to senior management, stating, "emergency evacuation plans are a legal requirement in Canada." Through risk assessments and annual drills, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to employee safety and prevent chaos and panic during crises.
Staying cool in extreme heat
"As temperatures soar, proactive measures are essential to combat extreme heat," says Irwin. She recommends closely monitoring health alerts and shares, "informing workers through various communication channels is crucial."
Irwin says during extreme heat alerts and warnings workers should be encouraged to take frequent breaks, and employers should provide ample water, and even offer food or snacks to combat heat-related strains.
Encouraging workers to check on each other and providing air-conditioned breaks or shaded areas significantly contribute to their well-being. By equipping employees with knowledge about heat-related symptoms and fostering a supportive work environment, employers can ensure the safety and productivity of their workforce during hot summer days.
The season many Canadians look forward to is here. Let’s make sure outdoor workers can safely get the job done, and enjoy time with their families.