THUNDER BAY, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)
One equipment manufacturer in northern Ontario is paving the way towards safer roads that lead into remote communities that have proven to be death traps for construction workers.
In order to get supplies into isolated, northern First Nations communities, winter road grooming equipment operators must build winter roads, at times crossing over the ice — a dangerous journey for construction workers, who are at risk of drowning should the ice break.
This winter, Rick Prior, manager of Thunder Bay, Ont.-based Loch Lomond Equipment Sales, began to modify all of the road plows he sold by installing an emergency escape hatch on the roof, giving an alternate means of egress if workers become trapped in snow, or the plow begins to sink through the ice.
“Our winters are definitely different than they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago or even five years ago,” Prior said, noting that ice is forming later in the season and breaking apart earlier, making the roads much more unpredictable for those who use them to deliver goods and material to what are otherwise inaccessible rural communities.
He said that there are about 3,000 kilometres of winter access roads maintained each winter, and that number is on the upswing due to industry growth, including new mine sites, in the north.
Prior said the escape hatches on his company’s snow groomers measure about 22 inches, are made with an aluminum frame and are located in the middle of either the operator or passenger’s compartment, depending on the design of the specific machine. In the case of a machine capsizing, Prior said that the hatches break free rather effortlessly.
In January of 2005, Karl Malmquist was operating a snow machine on the Peace River in northwestern Alberta when his machine broke through the ice and he drowned. According to WorkSafe Alberta, between 1991 and 2000, there were 447 ice-related deaths — 246 involved snowmobiles, 51 involved motorized vehicles, and 150 involved non-motorized vehicles.
This season is proving to be an especially hazardous one, different from previous years, mused Prior, who said that the ice formation resulted in intensified pressure.
Recommendations for ice safety plan
WorkSafe Alberta recommends developing an ice safety plan when dealing with river, stream or lake ice covers, especially because fluctuating water levels, under-ice currents and bottom conditions shifting can make conditions extremely unpredictable. As a result, WorkSafe Alberta cited the following means to improve safety conditions for those making the precarious trek:
— Choose the best site: usually the widest crossing site with the deepest water and most uniform bottom conditions.
— Be aware of variations in ice thickness: it is recommended to have thickness measured accurately using technical aids such as ground penetrating radar (GPR) profiling.
— Map the river bottom: sand bars can affect ice cover thickness, so river bottom topography should be mapped manually or using GPR or sonar.
— Ensure the river bank is stable: locations for access to and from the ice surface should be chosen where river bank stability is considered acceptable from a hydrological, geotechnical and environmental perspective.
— Be aware of other factors: Seemingly uncommon factors come into play which might be considered unexpected. For instance, high dams and river estuaries near tidewater can affect river flow and result in unsafe conditions.
In 2011, the Ontario government announced that they would be making developments in northern Ontario, particularly to remote First Nations communities only accessible through ice and snow.
“For northern Ontario’s remote communities, winter roads and air transportation are vital lifelines for fuel, food, basic amenities and access to education, health and emergency services,” a statement from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines said regarding its Growth Plan for Northern Ontario plan. “An integrated, long-term transportation plan is needed to maintain and enhance the North’s transportation infrastructure and to improve connectivity among the various modes of travel.”