OHS Canada Magazine

Plan ahead to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke


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June 6, 2024
By OHS Canada

Environment/Climate Change

With summer approaching, WorkSafeBC is urging employers to plan for the health and safety risks that come with extreme heat and exposure to wildfire smoke. These conditions can lead to significant health issues for workers, such as heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and respiratory problems.

“Planning for wildfire smoke and extreme heat is essential for ensuring the health and safety of workers during the summer months. Employers should always assess the unique risks of their outdoor or indoor worksites and implement appropriate measures to protect their employees from heat stress and poor air quality. It’s not just about compliance, it’s about safeguarding lives,” says Barry Nakahara, director, prevention field services for WorkSafeBC.

To effectively manage the risks of wildfire smoke and heat stress, employers should conduct risk assessments tailored to their specific worksites and workforce before extreme weather conditions arise. This involves identifying potential hazards, evaluating the severity of risks, and implementing appropriate control measures.

Three key factors should be considered when assessing weather-related risks:

  1. Environmental conditions: The combination of elevated temperatures, humidity, and poor air quality can create hazardous working conditions.
  2. Work conditions: Jobs that involve physical exertion can increase the body’s internal temperature, intensifying the risk of heat-related illnesses, and/or aggravating respiratory conditions.
  3. Personal health factors: Individual worker characteristics, such as age, fitness level, and pre-existing health conditions, can affect susceptibility to heat stress and sensitivity to wildfire smoke.

To manage the risks of wildfire smoke and extreme heat, WorkSafeBC advises employers to conduct thorough risk assessments tailored to their specific worksites. This includes identifying hazards, evaluating risk severity, and implementing control measures.

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Employers should:

  • Involve workers and safety committees: Engage employees in identifying hazards, assessing risks, and developing risk reduction strategies. Encourage employees to consider their personal risk factors, such as medications and any pre-existing conditions.
  • Develop risk reduction plans: When working outside, proactively identify smoke exposure hazards, and provide hydration, rest breaks, and shaded areas that are cooler. Review concerns for indoor working environments as well. Ensure there is first-aid coverage and emergency procedures in place.
  • Implement appropriate controls: Use the hierarchy of controls, prioritizing measures that eliminate or reduce hazards. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection when necessary.
  • Educate workers: Ensure employees can recognize the signs and symptoms of heat stress in themselves and their coworkers and know how to respond in emergencies.
  • Adapt to changing conditions: Monitor heat and air quality conditions on-site and adjust work practices as needed. Where possible, schedule strenuous physical work during the coolest parts of the day.

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