OHS Canada Magazine

Blast of arctic air over Western Canada prompts advisory from WorkSafeBC with temps plunging as low as -55C

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January 10, 2024
By OHS Canada

Health & Safety cold weather extreme cold Winter Safety WorkSafeBC

Suzana Prpic, senior manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC.

Extreme cold and bitter winds are pushing in from the Arctic through Yukon, the Northwest Territories, B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, bringing wind chill temperatures to as low as -55 C in some regions.

The warnings of “the first arctic intrusion of the year” from Environment Canada cover parts of the territories, much of central and northern British Columbia and northern sections of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The forecaster says the arctic air mass has settled over Yukon and the Northwest Territories with temperatures near -40 C and with the wind chill will drop to -55 C before temperatures turn more seasonal by Saturday.

WorkSafeBC advisory

WorkSafeBC issued an advisory earlier today in response to the plunging temperatures reminding employers to keep workers safe from winter-weather hazards.

“Winter conditions increase the risk of injuries caused by cold stress, frostbite, hypothermia, and slips, trips, and falls due to icy and slippery surfaces,” said Suzana Prpic, senior manager, prevention field services. “In addition, winter driving conditions can be dangerous across the province — even the most experienced drivers are challenged by cold temperatures, slippery roads, and reduced visibility.”


Employers are responsible for taking proactive steps to protect workers as weather conditions change — which includes conducting regular risk assessments and implementing appropriate control measures, it said.

Understanding the Risks

Between 2013 and 2023, there were 167 accepted claims for short-term disability or long-term disability benefits for injuries related to cold stress in B.C., including frostbite, hypothermia, and abrasions, according to WorkSafeBC.

In addition, more work-related motor vehicle crashes occur in November, December, and January than in any other three-month period.

Key winter-related risks include:

  • Cold stress and hypothermia: Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can lead to cold stress and hypothermia, impacting both physical and mental well-being. Recognizing the signs of these conditions is vital for early intervention.
  • Frostbite: In sub-zero temperatures, exposed skin is susceptible to frostbite, which can result in severe tissue damage. Adequate protective measures, such as insulated clothing and regular breaks in warm environments, can mitigate this risk.
  • Icy surfaces: Slippery and icy surfaces increase the likelihood of slips, trips, and falls. Employers should take proactive measures to de-ice walkways and provide appropriate footwear to prevent injuries.
  • Winter driving: Those who drive as part of their work should plan and check current weather and road conditions and ensure vehicles are properly equipped and maintained for the conditions.

Tailor risk assessments

The risks associated with winter conditions vary across industries and occupations. Workers at risk of cold weather exposure include transport truck drivers, recreational instructors, operators and attendants, construction workers, and utility and maintenance workers.

“Best results are achieved when frontline workers are actively engaged in risk assessments and the implementation of controls,” said Prpic.

Online resources

WorkSafeBC shared links to a number of online resources:

Everyone at risk

Environment Canada says extreme cold puts everyone at risk, but the risks are greater for children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, those working or exercising outdoors, and people who don’t have proper shelter.

“Watch for cold-related symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, muscle pain and weakness, numbness and colour change in fingers and toes,” Environment Canada says in its forecast.

The arrival of cold in B.C. after a warm start to winter brought snow, wind, the threat of avalanche, storm warnings, high waves, power outages and dangerous highway conditions.

A forecaster with Avalanche Canada says outdoor enthusiasts shouldn’t let their excitement over recent heavy snowfalls override the need for caution.

James Floyer says while some might feel the dump of snow means the “gates to Nirvana have opened” on Western Canada’s mountains, the snow will take until at least Friday to settle and will be particularly susceptible to avalanches in the meantime.

Some areas, including the backcountry around Whistler, B.C., and Golden in the Kootenay region, could be at risk of slides for longer because the fresh snow came on top of a “persistent weak layer” in the snowpack.

Floyer says anyone spending time in the backcountry should keep a close eye on the avalanche forecast.

He says the bitterly cold temperatures forecast for this week could help lower the avalanche risk by binding snow to the mountains.

“It’s absolutely a time to go out into the mountains, but it’s the time to do it cautiously,” Floyer said.

“Enjoy the snow, by all means, but make sure you check the avalanche forecast before you go and make sure you match terrain conditions.”

— with files from the Canadian Press


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