Breaking the ice: WorkSafeBC’s Suzana Prpic offers advice to protect workers from cold
Health & Safety Cold Extreme Weather PPE Winter WorkSafeBC
Editor’s Note: This article is part of OHS Canada’s special focus on Extreme Weather PPE – running Oct. 30 to Nov. 2. See full coverage here.
As winter weather approaches, employers need to take necessary steps to ensure the safety of their workers, especially those who work outdoors and are exposed to extreme temperatures and winds.
In an interview with OHS Canada, Suzana Prpic, senior manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC, outlined best practices and guidelines designed to protect workers from cold stress injuries like frostbite and hypothermia.
“Starting each workday with a plan is really important. Employers need to review the risk assessment in place for cold weather conditions,” Prpic said. She pointed out that in British Columbia, concerns around cold weather injuries are particularly acute from November to March. The planning should involve understanding the type of work to be done, its duration, and the level of physical activity required in outdoor conditions, she said.
WorkSafeBC’s regulations do have specific guidelines on cold exposure, addressed in Part Seven of the organization’s regulations.
“If thermal conditions could cause a worker’s core body temperature to fall below 36 degrees Celsius or 96.8 Fahrenheit, an exposure control plan has to be in place,” Prpic said.
The onus is on employers to monitor the temperature and windchill factor and to consider whether the work needs to take place under extreme weather conditions, she said.
The regulations state that, if a worker “is or may be” exposed to cold that could cause a drop in core body temperature, employers are required to “conduct a cold stress assessment to determine the potential hazardous exposure of workers, using measures and methods that are acceptable to the Board.”
It also has a specific note about heated shelters: If a worker is exposed to temps with an equivalent chill temperature less than -7C (19F), a nearby heated shelter must be available to the worker.
Clothing and PPE
Prpic also emphasized the role of appropriate gear.
“Protective clothing should be selected according to temperature, weather conditions, wind speed, and job intensity. Multiple layers are better than a single thick garment,” she said. She recommended synthetic fibers like polyester or polypropylene for inner layers and waterproof materials for outerwear.
“Warm gloves to protect fingers from frostbite is really important,” she said. “They need to be carefully selected, in consultation with workers, around the protection, flexibility, dexterity for those tasks that have to happen in cold temperatures.”
Eye protection is also critical, and sometimes overlooked.
“Eye coverage is something that we also speak about in terms of goggles — sealed eyewear, creating a shield for the eyes and the forehead and upper cheeks,” said Prpic. “Depending on where you’re working, how long you’ll be outside — all of these are key considerations.”
Right to refuse unsafe work
When asked whether workers have the right to refuse work in extreme cold, Prpic said that there must be a dialogue between the worker and the immediate supervisor. “Upon receiving that type of question or query from a worker, an employer would immediately investigate the situation,” she noted.
WorkSafeBC does not have specific statistics on prosecutions or charges related to cold weather exposure, but Prpic revealed that between 2018 and 2022, WorkSafeBC accepted 93 claims related to cold-weather injuries, with 82% occurring from November to March.
“They mostly dealt with frostbite and hypothermia,” she said.
Prpic concluded by highlighting that certain medications and pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, asthma, and diabetes can increase the risk of cold injuries.
“Check with your health practitioner to learn whether medications you’re taking may have adverse effects in a cold environment,” she advised.
As extreme weather events become increasingly common, employers are advised to consider not just the climate, but also their employees’ health and well-being, to ensure a safe working environment.