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Health & Safety: Preparing for extreme winter weather
December 19, 2022 By CCOHS
Like many other countries, Canada is seeing an increase in the number of extreme weather events happening each year due to climate change. In 2021 alone, there were 13 catastrophic weather events causing billions of dollars in damages (Government of Canada, 2021). These events can take the form of heat waves, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, hailstorms, or smog. In the winter months, climate change can bring extreme cold weather and harsh winter storms.
During an emergency, important decisions need to be made swiftly. A lack of preparation, resources, protocols, or trained personnel can lead to panic – the consequences of which can be severe. A well-developed emergency response plan that accounts for each type of climate emergency can reduce the risk of worker injuries and incidents, and prevent or minimize damage to property, equipment, materials, and the environment.
Start with hazard identification and risk assessment
An extreme weather event may not have happened near your workplace but that doesn’t mean it won’t have an impact. Climate emergencies can bring about hazards such as fires, explosions, poor air quality, building collapses, structural failures, spills, and the unintentional release of chemicals. You may also have to contend with equipment malfunctions, loss of power and water, flooding, ice-covered surfaces, dangerous driving conditions or stranded workers.
Perform a vulnerability assessment to identify which extreme weather events could occur in your area, then determine the potential hazards and risks for workers and the organization. These hazards and risks will depend on several factors such as location, weather trends, severity, as well as the size and type of your workplace. What are your capabilities to respond to an emergency? Do you have ready access to emergency services under regular circumstances? Will these services be available to your specific workplace in a widespread emergency?
After all the hazards have been identified for each climate emergency, conduct a risk assessment to evaluate the risks that each of these hazards pose to workers, property, and the environment. To assess risk, consider the likelihood and severity of harm or damage. This assessment will help with prioritization and resource allocation during emergency planning and, most importantly, the development of proper emergency response procedures.
Develop an emergency response plan
Once the potential risks and consequences of each climate emergency have been identified, determine the actions required to protect workers, property, and the environment.
Emergency response plans for extreme weather events should include written procedures on how to respond, along with the responsibilities of designated people. Can steps be taken to prevent or minimize the impact of an emergency? What resources will be required (such as trained personnel, firefighting and rescue equipment, personal protective equipment, first aid supplies, communication equipment, or power generators)? Where are they located? Are potential impacts on these resources also being accounted for? Will other emergency supplies need to be provided such as food and water? Detailed lists of emergency response personnel including their cell phone numbers, alternate contact details, and their duties and responsibilities should be readily accessible within the plan.
Outline a process for checking the local weather forecast and air quality, and a communication plan for sending weather alerts to workers. Include emergency procedures for workers who may not be in the primary workplace, including those who work outside, travel, work in remote areas, work alone, or are responsible for overseeing critical processes and equipment. You’ll want to include details on how plans will be initiated and communicated with workers in the event of an emergency. Note that the usual channels of communication cannot be relied upon to function normally.
Plans should factor in how long it will take for internal and external emergency services to respond. In the event of climate emergencies, there could be a delay in response due to an increase in demand for these services. Alternately, your organization may be able to offer services to others in an emergency. Emergency planning is important from both a workplace and community perspective.
Familiarize the workplace with extreme weather protocols
Given the broad range of potential climate emergencies, the plan and protocols are likely to be contained in a substantial document. The plan should also provide workers with separate written instructions about their emergency response duties. Outline procedures on how to safely monitor, shut down or continue to operate critical processes, equipment and other devices that may cause injuries or damage in the event of a power failure or malfunction.
Ensure your emergency preparedness committee is reviewing the plan and its effectiveness regularly so it can be revised when needed.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.
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