• BBRRRR… Working Outside in Winter

  • With the onset of winter blizzards and freezing conditions across Canada, it’s a good time to talk about some of the pitfalls and problems associated with performing Phase One and Two Environmental Site Assessments in winter; and how to stay safe and comfortable in adverse weather.

    Stay safe out there
    Winter work outside brings its own unique safety concerns, that need to be addressed in your Health and Safety Plan. There will be additional dangers when conducting drilling or excavation, including the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, along with slip, trip and fall hazards due to ice and snow. When there is snow cover, some obstacles may be hidden (boulders, gullies, water bodies), and you may need to pre-clear a safe access route to your planned work area. You should recognize the signs of frostbite and hypothermia, and how to deal with them, including added safety gear as needed. Travel to and from job-sites can be treacherous, so plan around or avoid travel during forecast storms or freezing rain events. The consultant should confirm with their excavator or driller any other dangers or limitations that affect their operations.

    Sure, we can do that in winter, but…
    Many clients ask if we can drill and sample in frozen conditions; and yes we can, in most cases. There will be limitations and production may be slower, but with proper planning and equipment we have completed drilling programs in some of the nastiest weather in Canada. You have to be prepared, and many things can slow production. You may need to plan and budget for snow removal for site access, longer time to thaw and start equipment each day, shorter daylight hours, necessary breaks for field staff, and just generally slower and more difficult working conditions. In some cases, some tasks may not be feasible or practical, such as trying to sample groundwater below -20C (pumps, water samples and tubing can freeze up and pump batteries die quickly). Some limitations may require documentation and extra efforts to work around, such as the inability to inspect the ground surface for staining or disturbance during a Phase One ESA when there is heavy snow cover.

    Be realistic in your expectations and plan ahead
    As noted above, winter work can be slow and subject to numerous limiting conditions. This needs to be considered in the scope of work and budget. Winter field work will take longer and may cost significantly more than other seasons. The project manager must inform the stakeholders, and especially the client, of the potential impacts to the project scope, schedule and costs; and be realistic in deliverables. For managers who have not been in the field for a while, I suggest you spend some time on the back of a drill in February to get re-acquainted. It may give you better insight to budget and limitations, and gain you some respect from your field staff, if you stay out in the cold long enough. For those of you new to winter field work, it can be a miserable time if you don’t have the right gear. Warm, dry, comfortable winter boots, and warm (wool) socks are a must. Dress in layers with a good wick-away base layer, a warm mid layer (merino wool sweaters are great), and an insulated, wind-proof outer layer. Good gloves and hat (or hard-hat liner when needed) are also important. Avoid getting wet and have extra dry clothing available. In the right conditions, winter work can be somewhat enjoyable; but if you are cold, or worse wet and cold, you will be miserable, and run a greater risk of hypothermia. Be prepared, plan ahead and stay safe.

    Bill Leedham, P. Geo., CESA
    Bill is the Head Instructor and Course Developer for the Associated Environmental Site Assessors of Canada (
    www.aesac.ca); and the founder and President of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services Inc. You can contact Bill at info@down2earthenvironmental.ca