Working in the Polar Vortex

Freezing temperatures have kept many indoors. However, some businesses run into situations where working in extreme weather conditions is unavoidable. With the polar vortex that has descended over much of Canada comes a set of precautionary guidelines that employers may follow to ensure their staff’s safety when working in cold environments.

Surprisingly, there are in fact no regulated maximum exposure limits in Canada for working in cold temperatures. Yet, each province is host to numerous occupations that take place outside in hazardous conditions, sectors such as construction, fishing, telecommunications, and meat packaging. For this reason, provincial governments set their own standards of conduct for outdoor cold exposure to keep their employees healthy and safe.

The Saskatchewan Department of Labour suggests that warm-up breaks should taken every 30 to 75 minutes when temperatures reach -26 degrees Celsius. All non-emergency work should stop by the time the temperature reaches -43 degrees Celsius.

The recommended exposure times are based on the wind chill factor and assume workers are wearing dry clothing.

In Alberta, the government suggests organizing employees on a buddy system, checking each other for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.

It also highly recommends that administrative staff be conscious of the hazards of working in harsh climates and adapt their working environments. Regulations stipulate that employers have hot soup available in a heated break room to support employees and reduce the risks of hypothermia. It also advocates avoiding activities that necessitate heavy sweating, which could lead to serious injuries.

In Quebec, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail has a few suggestions to stay safe for those working outdoors in cold conditions, such as police officers, fire fighters, and bus or truck drivers. It says the key to braving the cold is extra layers. The Commission also has employees working during the warmest parts of the day and taking more breaks in a warm place.

Taking these and other preventative measures is much less time consuming and upsetting than seeking medical attention and following up with worker's compensation forms.

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