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Worker safety, and other climate change risks

Image of a wildfire burning near Lytton, B.C.
The skies around Lytton, B.C. are lit up by wildfire resulting from record heat in late June.

BC Hydro meteorologist looks at ways B.C. businesses can adapt and thrive

As the Big Heat Wave was about to hit B.C. in June, Tim Ashman did two things he'd never done before.

First, the BC Hydro meteorologist sent out a severe weather warning – previously reserved only for extreme wind, snow or ice storm events – for excessive heat province-wide. Then he called his parents, who were about to travel from the Kootenays to the Vancouver area, advising them to take extra water with them in the car. He also told them to talk to their neighbours about helping safeguard their homes against potential wildfire.

"I told my family to tell their neighbours to have emergency plans to evacuate, and that it might be a good idea to invest in a fireproof safe, too," says Ashman. "My parents live in Trail and my brother lives in Prince George, and while those aren't the most extreme areas for wildfire, they live on the edge of a smaller city near forests. And we knew this might be an unprecedented wildfire season."

Pretty much everything about the June heat wave, the record high temperatures, and the wildfire decimation of Lytton and eventually Monte Creek, was unprecedented. It's time to reassess how businesses and residents adapt to hotter, drier summers in B.C., because the odds of extreme heat have increased dramatically in recent years.

"Not every summer is going to be like this summer, but the fact is that frequency of extreme heat is expected to increase," says Ashman, who said this summer's one-in-a-thousand years temperatures could, by mid-century, occur as often as once every five or 10 years. "Climate change is underway."

Businesses should look at better buildings and revised worker policies

Asked what businesses in B.C. can do to adapt to any extreme weather that might occur more frequently with climate change, he first cautions that he's not exactly an expert in that field. But he offers some common sense advice.

"I think we need to look at our buildings, from the foundation up, pun not intended," he says. "Our housing and our communities need to be built to be more resilient to these extremes and risks associated with them."

There's help for B.C. businesses who want to better prepare for the changing climate. BC Hydro's Business Energy Savings incentives (BESI) offer a variety of HVAC rebates that include:

  • Adding variable frequency drives to existing HVAC fans or pumps
  • Replacing a standard pump with a variable speed ECM (electro-commutated motor) pump for water systems.
  • Replacing an economizer controller sensor on a rooftop unit.

CleanBC's Better Buildings program provides funding and capital incentives to encourage energy-efficient design, construction and renovation of commercial buildings. Not only are energy-efficient buildings seen as a key part of B.C.'s plans to reduce energy-related GHG emissions, they're also about keeping us more comfortable and productive.

And from Ashman's perspective, the big lessons of this summer were that a business-as-usual approach to working, especially outdoors, carries significant risks.

"Heat mortality is a very strong term to use, but people die in heat waves," he says. "And I think that businesses need to consider that. I think the way that workers work, and what's expected of them, needs to evolve somewhat."

"That may mean shutting things down in extreme heat, and that course of action needs to be seen as acceptable. I think employers need to do everything they can to protect their workers on the hot days. Yes, we have better infrastructure and better access to services here than in some countries, but there are some things you can't escape."

Ashman's advice reflects that of WorkSafeBC, which in late June took the unusual step of urging employers to consider closing down their workplaces if workers couldn't be protected from the risk of heat stress. The WorkSafeBC site has a page dedicated to heat stress that includes an informative section on how to protect workers. Advice ranges from moving jobs to cooler environments where possible, to making physical modifications to facilities (such as improving ventilation), to changing work practices and policies.

A few words about weather predictions, such as 'a 40% chance of rain'

A lot of us are mystified by weather predictions that might forecast a 60% chance of rain on a given day when, so often, no rain falls. What exactly does those percentages mean?

The truth may surprise you.

"Let's say that in Vancouver, for example, there's a 40% chance of rain," says Ashman. "This just means that, given the predicted meteorological conditions, it will rain on four out of 10 days like today."  

He adds that the distribution of rain in a region can vary dramatically, from scattered or isolated showers to a more steady rain elsewhere.

There was a great deal of certainty around the extreme heat warning issued by meteorologists in late June. Few, if any, however, forecasted just how high the mercury would rise.

"We were predicting all-time temperature records to be broken, but to have the all-time Canadian record broken on three consecutive days and ultimately by a margin of nearly 5°C on the hottest day (49.6°C at Lytton) wasn't something that was probable," says Ashman.