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Climate change is threatening technical safety, says B.C.’s regulator

Phil Gothe, lead executive officer at Technical Safety BC, says regulator investigated 81 incidents

Climate change is causing technical equipment to malfunction and forcing people into dangerous decisions, warns the head of the organization overseeing the installation and operation of such systems across the province.

Phil Gothe, lead executive officer at Technical Safety BC, sees these trends accelerating in the future.

“We are fortunate in British Columbia, we have lots of resources, we are a relatively well-off society, so we have the means in many cases to react and adapt, but we are going to have to do more of it,” he said.

These comments come amid the regulator’s 2022 annual report, which was released in May.

More frequently occurring periods of extreme heat and cold across the province related to climate change are creating unfamiliar environmental conditions with two effects for safety.

First, they are impacting equipment itself, Gothe said.

High humidity, for example, can cause electrical malfunctions, while extremely low temperatures can cause ice to build up on vents, he added. Lightning strikes have also damaged gas lines, causing gas leaks and at least one documented case of fire.

Second, climate change is causing people to make decisions they would not make otherwise. For example, residents of a Charlie Lake home in northern British Columbia used outdoor appliances to heat their home during extreme-cold weather when temperatures had dropped to minus 37 degrees Celsius.

“In this particular case, they were switching out propane tanks and there was (a) propane leak, which ended up igniting and causing an explosion,” Gothe said. One person suffered second degree burns.

Gothe said that incident also points to another issue: the existing inequality among different groups to respond to the effects of climate change.

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“I understand your comment around the Darwin Awards, but I think what we often forget is that there are marginalized communities, marginalized groups in B.C. that are not as able to adapt,” Gothe said. “(There) are communities in B.C. that are faced with some difficult decisions. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it is either ‘freeze to death or bring the heater into the home.’”

Overall, Technical Safety BC recorded 504 reported incidents and chose to investigate 81 incidents caused by unsafe conditions created by unqualified workers, system failures, lack of awareness or poor asset management choices.

These incidents caused four fatalities and 100 injuries, including 12 major ones, Gothe said.

“In 2022, which is the time frame of this (report), there were no fatalities related to climate change, directly,” he said. “But there were a number of injuries.”

The report also highlights two other aspects.

Crews continue to underestimate the dangers of working near gaslines. In 2022, Technical Safety BC investigated 24 reports of gas leaks, including what the report calls two “very serious gas” strikes at the Canadian Forces Base in Comox and a residence in Fernie.

The investigations found that the individuals might not have understood the risks and could have done more to take proper precautions.

Technical Safety BC has also published guidelines warning the public of contractors working licenses or permits.

Gothe said more people are electrifying their homes by installing solar panels or charging stations for their EV. When doing so, they should use qualified individuals.

“Quite frankly, (using unqualified individuals) is not worth it.”

This issue is particularly pressing with labour shortage, he added. The shortage of qualified contractors is real and getting worse, he added.

But Gothe also offered some hope: While he cannot speak for the responsible provincial ministries, efforts are underway to fix those labour shortages, thereby improving safety.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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