A winter storm is a meteorological phenomenon that causes significant snowfall combined with other potentially hazardous conditions, such as freezing rain, strong winds, blowing snow or extreme cold. Freezing rain is drizzle or rain that freezes in contact with the ground and exposed objects. This frozen water forms a layer of transparent ice that makes sidewalks and driving surfaces slippery.
Climate change will increase the frequency and severity of winter storms and freezing rain events.
Injuries and accidents
Snow, ice, blowing snow, strong winds or a combination of these conditions can:
- Make driving conditions dangerous and increase the risk of traffic accidents.
- Make walking more hazardous. There is an increased risk of falling (bruises, fractures) or being injured by falling tree branches.
- Make you physically exert yourself to shovel snow, which can lead to back, shoulder and neck pain caused by repetitive movements.
- Cause power outages. The risk of fire, burns and explosions caused by flammable gases from back-up heating or lighting systems (space heaters, kerosene lamps, candles), gas generators, barbecues or camping stoves is therefore higher. The risk of electrocution when power is restored after an outage is also increased.
Snow accumulation can:
- Make walking difficult and increase the effort needed to get around. The risk of raising your heart rate and aggravating heart problems is therefore higher.
- Require several shovelling sessions, a vigorous exercise that rapidly raises blood pressure and heart rate. There is an increased risk of heart attack or angina and an increased risk of heart problems when shovelling in cold weather due to a higher metabolic rate.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur:
- During a power outage. The risk is high if fuel-powered appliances are used indoors, such as back-up heating or lighting systems, gas generators, barbecues or camping stoves.
- If you are in a car with the engine running. The risk is high if the exhaust pipe is blocked by snow.
For more information, read the Carbon monoxide poisoning page.
Food poisoning can occur during a power outage. The risk increases as the temperature in refrigerators and freezers rises.
Protection and prevention
To protect yourself against the risks associated with winter storms and freezing rain, take the following preventive measures:
- Buy traction aids for your shoes such as crampons.
- Purchase a light shovel with an ergonomic shaft and other shovels that make clearing snow easier, such as a sleigh shovel or push-style shovel, which allows to move snow rather than lift it.
- Have your chimney cleaned.
- Have your doctor check your risk of heart disease before you start the physically demanding activity of shovelling snow.
- Get emergency kits for the car and home that contain drinking water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, a blanket and first aid items. Read the Prepare an emergency kit to keep at home and Prepare an emergency kit to keep in your vehicle sections on the How to prepare at home page.
- Get your vehicle ready for winter and, most importantly, make sure you get your winter tires put on before the first snow.
When a winter storm or freezing rain is forecast
- Make sure you find out about the coming weather conditions.
- Plan your outings to the grocery store, for example, so that you go out as little as possible during or shortly after the storm or freezing rain.
- Make sure you have back-up lighting in the event of a power outage (flashlights, candles).
- Make sure you have enough prescription medication.
- Find out about the condition of relatives who live alone or in geographically remote regions.
During and shortly after the storm
- Be careful when walking. Use traction aids such as crampons on your boots to avoid slipping on slippery surfaces and injuring yourself.
- Find out about road conditions before driving.
- Adjust your driving to road conditions, avoid sudden manoeuvres and slow down. Go to the CAA-Québec site for more winter driving tips.
- Find out about the condition of relatives who live alone in geographically remote regions.
- Do warm-up exercises (flexion, extension of the lower back, stretches) before shovelling.
- Use the proper shovelling technique:
- place your feet shoulder width apart,
- when lifting snow, bend your knees and use your thigh muscles,
- avoid twisting and rotating your body,
- avoid lifting snow above a height of 4 feet (1.3 m).
- Avoid shovelling after eating. A full stomach can strain the heart during vigorous physical activity.
- Take breaks to rest your muscles and heart.
- Make sure you clear away snow that could block the exhaust pipe on your vehicle before you start the engine to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Read the recommendations for preventing the harmful effects of cold temperatures, les frostbite et l’hypothermia.
- Never use a barbecue or any other fuel-powered appliance indoors. If you have to use a generator, put it outside and far enough away from doors and windows to prevent exhaust gases from entering the home.
- Make sure the chimney outlet of your propane or wood-burning stove is clear of snow or ice. In houses that are said to be airtight (based on an airtightness test), wood-burning stoves should have an outdoor air intake to prevent backdrafting from the chimney or incomplete combustion.
- Put carbon monoxide detectors in the following places:
- on each floor,
- in the hallway that leads to bedrooms,
- in the room over the garage.
- Take the necessary precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Have your heating system inspected and cleaned by a specialized technician once a year.
- Follow the instructions for using your back-up heating or lighting system.
- Avoid opening the refrigerator or freezer door too often so that your food stays fresh for longer.
- Sort through your food if there is an extended outage. Read the Conserver ou jeter vos aliments après une panne de courant ou une inondation page (Store or throw away your food after a power failure or flood; in French only) to find out how to avoid food poisoning.
Read the Power outages page too.
People at risk
Anyone can suffer the consequences of winter storms and freezing rain. However, some people are more vulnerable:
- People who have risk factors for heart problems, such as obesity and smoking
- People with reduced mobility
- People who have a heart or cardiorespiratory condition
- People who have chronic health problems
- People who have mental health problems
- People who lack personal resources (for example, people who are homeless or isolated)
Last update: November 30, 2022