Employer Guide For Safe Work Near Moving Water

What does provincial legislation have to say to guide employers for safe work near moving water?

The short answer is that provincial WCB regulations are virtually silent on the subject of working in, on and near moving water. They also stay pretty tight lipped on the subject of working around flat water, too.

This can be a rather startling discovery for employers and supervisors because it shifts the entire responsibility onto them to ensure their employees are safe.

To give yourself a bit more background on the general concept of “if a worker can get hurt, they need training and equipment in order to be safe” read our article, What Are The Responsibilities Of A Supervisor To Provide Training?

But for specifics on what to do in the absence of provincial regulations regarding safety around moving water (which we call “swiftwater”) keep reading this article.

When Regulations Say (Or Don’t Say) It All

WCB regulations vary from province to province. We’ll use British Columbia’s regulations as an example for this discussion.

Other than an article on the effects of cold water immersion (ie. you could get really cold and drown) the only other reference WorkSafe BC makes to safety around water is in Regulation 32.9: Evacuation and Rescue – Work areas over water.

If workers are required to work in places from which they could fall and drown, and are not protected by guardrails or other means of fall protection permitted by this Regulation, the employer must provide:

  1. a suitable rescue boat, equipped with a boat hook, available at the site and capable of being used for rescue at all times,
  2. a buoyant apparatus attached to a nylon rope less than 9 mm (3/8 in) in diameter, and not less than 15 m (50 ft) in length, and
  3. a sufficient number of workers who are available when work is underway to implement rescue procedures and who are properly equipped and instructed in those procedures.

Here, the standard-of-care dictates that if you have not trained your personnel to self rescue, then you must provide safety personnel dedicated to providing rescue services, and not engaged in any other work. This is most applicable to situations where the workers would be unable to self rescue due to the protective equipment they wear (eg. harnesses, tool belts, steel toed boots, welding equipment) or perhaps as a result of injuries they could sustain in a fall. 

In cases like this, the most cost effective approach to safety is often hiring standby rescue technicians.

For many other jobs, employers simply can’t justify the expense of dedicated rescuers such as in field work where personnel range far and wide by themselves or in pairs; for emergency responders who are already tasked with rescuing others; for engineers inspecting bridges or pipelines; or whitewater raft guides who are fully responsible for their passengers.

In these cases, the only workable option is to train employees to self rescue and to perform rescues of their colleagues or clients. The rest of this article provides a starting point for these employers.

The Standard-Of-Care Can Inform Employers

Without specific WCB regulations to guide them, employers must look to the “standard-of-care” or their industry’s “best practices” to ensure they are operating in a similarly safe manner. If they don’t, a legal case could be made that they were being negligent.

“Standard-of-care” is a bit of an intangible concept that essentially means “the degree of prudence, caution or reasonable care required of an individual while engaged in any activity that could potentially harm others.”  

(Want to learn more? We talk more about it in our article, How Your Rescue Guidelines Shape Industry Standards.)

So what is the “standard-of-care” for those who work in, on or near swiftwater?

That depends to some extent on the industry you’re in, but it boils down to three things: training, equipment and safe work procedures.

Raven can help with all three.

First, let’s tackle training.

Standard-Of-Care Training For Moving Water

One of the first things you will learn in a swiftwater course is the definition of swiftwater, which will tell employers whether training for this high risk environment is required.

We often use the definition of swiftwater developed by the National Fire Protection Agency, which is equally applicable to all workers who encounter moving water:

The NFPA defines swiftwater as water moving moving at a speed greater than 1.15 mph (1 knot) or 1.85 km/p/h.

Given that an average person walks at about 5 km/p/h, most employers are surprised to find out that even water moving very, very slowly is classified as swiftwater. Part of that reason that such slow moving water is considered “swiftwater” is the many factors that can quickly increase the depth, speed and force of moving water. Those changing factors are where a great deal of the risk lies.

Therefore, if an employee can encounter what qualifies as swiftwater in the course of their job, they need the proper training and equipment to do it safely.

There are several levels of swiftwater training to choose from and an employer must carefully consider each job description to detemine which is required.

A useful resource is the diagram on “work zones”. It shows the “hot”, “warm”, and “cold” zones as they apply to anyone working in, on or near swiftwater, including the PPE that must be worn in each. In a nutshell, the closer to water, the more training and equipment you need:

  • The “hot zone” is in the water and in order to meet the standard-of-care for those who work in this zone, you must take a Swiftwater Rescue Technician (Level 1) course.
  • The “warm zone” is the area in which a fall could end up in the water. Work in the warm zone requires a Swiftwater Operations course in order to meet the standard-of-care.
  • Finally, if you work in the “cold zone” – more than three metres from the water’s edge – you might still need training in order to meet the standard-of-care.

Many employers wonder why someone who will never get close to a hazard could require training but in fact, there are two very good reasons.

First, if you work with people that regularly enter the warm or hot zones, you should be aware of the risks that they will encounter, so that you can provide assistance if required. In addition, if you are a full time desk jockey, but you supervise or employ someone who works in the warm or hot zones, you should understand the risks that they will encounter so that you can make informed decisions about the training, equipment and safe work procedures to keep them safe. Our Swiftwater Awareness course is designed specifically to meet the needs of those who work in the cold zone.

Our courses will teach you:

  • how to identify the hazards and how to avoid them
  • how to develop safe work procedures that will reduce risk around swiftwater
  • communications methods that work in this environment
  • appropriate equipment
  • how to cross swiftwater safely
  • self rescue skills
  • a range of skills from low to high risk for the rescue of others

If you have personnel who work near, in or on water that moves faster than a turtle’s walk, one of our swiftwater courses will fulfill your responsibility as an employer to ensure your personnel have the training required to work safely. 

An employer’s responsibility for employees who work near moving water doesn’t stop there, because training is only as good as the documentation that proves it happens. We can help you there too, but keeping a record of your certification that is available electronically within 24 hours in the event of employment or legal issues.

Standard-Of-Care Gear For Safe Work Near Moving Water

Next is the requirement to provide the appropriate personal protective gear for those who work in the warm or hot zones.

Raven sells a wide range of equipment that has been tested on the job by our clients, who include the full spectrum of Canadian workers tasked with a wide range of jobs. We see all kinds of gear put to the test, from drysuits, helmets and PFDs, to knives, gloves and pulleys.

Swiftwater gear for safe work near moving water

Standard-Of-Care Safe Work Procedures For Moving Water

Now that your employees are trained and equipped properly, you will need to develop safe work procedures to establish how work in, on and near swiftwater should be conducted to ensure it is done safely. We can help here too.

We can provide some free advice any day – just call or send us an email.

Or, if you require something more formalized, or documentation, we provide a range of consulting services including site safety assessments and the development of safe work procedures.

Keeping Skills Sharp For Working Near Moving Water

While our certifications are good for three years before personnel have to re-certify, you have a responsibility as an employer to ensure that your employees practice their skills regularly enough to stay competent.

Many regulations and standards specify annual practice as the minimum requirement. And again, if you don’t document this, it didn’t happen. We offer two options, depending on the numbers involved:

  • INDIVIDUAL clients can take advantage of our standing offer to audit any of our public courses – for free – as long as you have a valid certification in the same course. It doesn’t extend certifications in any way, but it’s a great way to brush up on skills before a field season, or prior to a particularly challenging project.
  • GROUPS can hold guided practices each year for a group, check out our Annual Training Maintenance Program. Our Instructor comes to your location, on dates of your choice, to run your personnel through the key skills in a safe, controlled environment and again, we’ll sign your existing training records so that you can that you’ve practiced. 

Summary: Employer Guide For Safe Work Near Moving Water

While provincial WCB regulations don’t say much about working around swiftwater, we can certainly make up for that lack of guidance.

Give us a call today or check out our website for lots more info on the training, equipment and services that we can provide to help you meet your due diligence requirements for this challenging environment.

Keep your skills sharp for safe work around moving water with annual training maintenance.