Wildfires are on the rise in Canada: how to keep outdoor workers safe.

The sun is shining, and the summer heat is right around the corner. As the warmer weather approaches, it introduces hazards that employers need to be aware of, so they implement the right safety measures to ensure staff are protected says Wendy Irwin, Health & Safety Consultant at BrightHR Canada.

Conditions such as wildfires and lightning can put workers at great risk for illness and injury. Occupations, where workers are required to work outdoors in the summer, include farming, camps, construction, and landscaping. Employers are required under the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation in Canada to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their employees.

The cost of not doing so is too great and there are hefty fines. For example, in Ontario under the OHSA, if an employer is convicted of an offense, they may be subject to a fine of up to $500,000 for all other persons and/or up to 12 months' imprisonment. Health and safety inspectors will apply and enforce these laws based on the facts they find in the workplace.

Below are the top climate hazards and how risk assessments can help keep staff protected.

Wildfires

There are roughly 8,000 wildfires in Canada each year. Such hazards can claim human lives, destroy buildings, and devastate communities. Wildfires have been on the rise and it’s more important than before for employers to take precautions to protect their employees from exposure to wildfire smoke, especially if their business requires outdoor work.

Wildfire smoke contains hazardous components that can cause short-term and long-term health effects. When inhaled, carbon monoxide reduces the oxygen supply in the body. This can lead to nausea, dizziness, headaches, visual impairment, and loss of consciousness. If inhaled in great quantities, carbon monoxide may cause death. Additionally, particulate matter can affect your respiratory system and settle in your lungs causing irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, cough, or shortness of breath.

**How to protect workers from smoke exposure.

To protect employees from smoke exposure, it is important to first conduct a risk assessment. A risk assessment helps to identify hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm, analyzes and evaluates the risk associated with that hazard, and determines appropriate ways to eliminate the hazard, or control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated.

Risk assessments are an integral part of an occupational health and safety management plan. It helps to create awareness of hazards, identify who may be at risk, and determine whether a control program is required for a particular hazard, among other benefits.

The Government of Canada’s Environment and Climate Change provides information through the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). Through this index, employers can determine measures necessary to mitigate the risk of exposure to wildfire smoke. Employees should be trained on how to monitor and revise work when the index indicates extreme caution.

Below are a few recommendations on how employers can protect employees from wildfire smoke exposure. • Increase the frequency and/or duration of breaks. • Move work indoors or relocate to an outdoor location with better air quality. If you can’t move, reschedule work till the air quality gets better. Follow air quality advisories in your area to plan shifts. • Slow down the pace of work or increase the number of workers on the task. Reducing physical exertion will reduce the inhalation of polluted air. • Increase the frequency and/or duration of breaks. • Wildfire smoke also causes heat stress. Provide cool drinking water on the work site. Remind your workers to drink a glass of water at least every 15 to 20 minutes even if they aren’t feeling thirsty.

Lightning

Lightning kills more Canadians than hail, wind, rain, and tornadoes combined, making it an important safety consideration. The odds of getting struck by lightning are more than one in a million, it kills 2 to 3 people every year and injures another 80 people, according to Environment Canada (2021). It’s important for employers to be aware that most of these injuries and fatalities occur between June and August.

This is especially important for outdoor workers involved in outdoor recreation, construction workers, and road crews. Employers must recognize the hazards associated with electrical storms and have safety procedures and a preparedness plan in place. This will help to minimize any harm or injury to employees. Such policies need to be reviewed seasonally.

Lightning safety produced may be included and are not limited to the following: • Having a process in place to notify workers about lightning safety warnings. • Establishing criteria/policy for stopping and restarting outdoor work activities • Outlining what actions workers must take when hearing thunder or seeing lightning or warning signs of an approaching storm. • Paying attention to weather conditions

How BrightSafe can help

Managing health & safety is a big responsibility, and there are always tasks to stay on top of whatever industry you work in. Not only do employers need to make sure they are compliant, but all the documentation and policies must also be done properly. Business owners are not employment experts, they are experts in running their business. This is where smart health & safety software can help. BrightSafe provides employers with templates to make risk assessments, record any workplace injuries or incidents and get automatic hazard notifications from staff.

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