After one of the coldest and wettest spring seasons in history, the BC planting season is facing an abrupt and drastic shift back toward hot dry weather, and a return to the various health and safety challenges that come with it. Environment Canada has issued nearly province-wide special weather statements warning of hot and stormy conditions in the coming weeks, including temperature spiking into the mid-30s in southern and interior regions.
Even with the past month of rain and snow, the enduring high levels of fuel in the forest will dry out quickly and re-establish the wildfire hazards that forestry crews face each year. Recent tours of the field have found many crews lacking water and fire-tools while operating under a presumption of safety that will quickly evaporate in the coming weeks. Employers need to ensure their water tanks are full and crews properly trained and drilled in case they need to respond to a fire. Access issues are also occurring, with the sudden snow melt compromising roads and water crossings. Drivers need to remember to monitor and reassess any bridges they may cross, and emergency communication systems should be tested and demonstrated with all crew members to ensure that outside assistance can be reached if needed.
Forestry crews also need to remember the health lessons learned in the past season of extreme heat. While no planting workers were among the estimated 620 deaths attributed to the 2021 heat dome, several workers required medical evacuation due to heat stroke and many others experienced heat exhaustion that negatively impacted their health and their season. The BC Government is launching a Heat Alert and Response System (BC HARS) to inform local communities of imminent heat emergencies. However, forestry crews need to be ready to take appropriate steps to protect their workers in advance by setting appropriate thresholds for shutting down operations and developing methods of keeping workers cool and providing relief during extreme heat.
The sudden shift from cold and wet weather to hot, dry, and potentially stormy conditions requires a shift in preparation and thinking. Employers need to re-evaluate emergency systems, and workers need to be re-oriented with the risks associated with weather extremes. This includes protecting themselves against dehydration as well as sun exposure, with outdoor workers experiencing two to three times greater risks of skin cancers than those that work indoors. Keeping tents cool with reflective tarps, ventilating personal spaces with portable rechargeable fans, and setting up cooling stations in camps and on worksites are among the options available to help workers remain comfortable and productive through hot weather.