Winter Ice Safety

By Safeopedia Staff
Last updated: March 8, 2018
Key Takeaways

Winter ice safety moment.

"The whole family got new skates for Christmas and of course couldn’t wait to try them out. So we decided that a few days at our cottage, which sits on a lake, would be the perfect place. A little hard work would be in store for us to clear the ice, but once done we would have our own private skating rink. It was bitter cold when we arrived, but we were ready for the ice cleaning challenge so we could get to some skating. The lake was covered in snow but there were lots of snowmobile tracks on it so we figured it was safe, even though the weather had been mild the week before. We were into about ½ of the snow removal and were just beginning to see a good section of cleared ice, although in some spots it looked a little grey. We just figured that was because of something under the ice, and went about getting our skates on. Just as the kids were about to try their first spin on the ice, a neighbor happened to come along, who lives all year in the area. He quickly warned us that the ice was not thick enough and we were about to set out on a dangerous adventure. The grey ice was a big indicator that what he was saying was true. Fortunately, our neighbor prevented what could have been a very dangerous situation of one of us falling through the ice" – Doug (Age 48)


Quick Tips

Ice accidents are major mishap through the winter months, and they are not just restricted to road mishaps. People walking on rivers or small beds of water they think have frozen over, can lead to a tragedy. Ice fishers commonly run into dangerous ice situations, as do snowmobilers and skaters who don’t know how to determine if the ice is safe for use.

Factors That Affect the Thickness of Ice

  1. The time of year is really important. Just a few days of warm or cold weather will mean unsafe ice
  2. The type of water and where it is located. Not all water freezes. If it is a fast moving body of water, then it isn’t likely to freeze, or at least not to the point where it would be safe to walk on. Water that is sheltered in its surroundings doesn’t get the chance to form a solid layer of ice
  3. The environment has a big impact on the depth of ice that will form. How deep the body of water is, and the size of the water area are vital factors to consider. If the water houses rocks and logs or has a lot of docks surrounding it, these can affect the freezing of the water. These items absorb the sun during the day and raise the water temperature. On lakes where there is a lot of vehicle activity from snowmobiles for example, they can create shock waves which can make the ice unstable

Identifying Safe Ice

  • By carefully inspecting the ice and safely testing it for its strength will allow you to determine if it is going to be safe for your ice activities
  • If the ice is opaque this means that wet snow has been freezing onto the ice. This type of ice has half the strength of clear blue ice which is the strongest. If the ice looks grey or has grey spots, this indicates there is water sitting just below the top layer of ice and it is dangerous
  • If you are alone and you are going to be the only one skating or walking on the ice or walking on it, then you want it to be no less than 15cm thick
  • If a group is going to use the ice for activities then it should be 20cm thick
  • Snowmobilers should never set out on ice that is less than 25cm in thickness

The proper handling of an ice emergency could save your life or someone else’s


If you are the one in trouble:

  • Call as loud as you can for help
  • Avoid trying to climb out of the hole you just fell through. The ice is too weak to support you
  • Try floating on your stomach as there will be air trapped in your clothing to give you some buoyancy
  • Reach out with your arms onto the broken ice, but don’t push down
  • Kick your legs to help propel you back onto the ice surface
  • Once you are back on the surface of the ice fan your arms and legs out as much as possible to distribute your weight on the ice surface and begin to crawl towards safety. Or, an alternative method is to roll
  • Make sure that you have your bearings and that you are headed towards shore

If you are the rescuer:

  • This is also a dangerous situation for you. If possible try to perform your rescue efforts from the shore. Call for help immediately and preferably trained rescuers. See if there is anything around like a long tree branch or pole. If so lie on your stomach and extend this out to the person who has fallen through the ice
  • If you have to go onto the ice then be sure to wear a floating device and test the ice in front of using a branch or anything that is long. You will need something like a rope or branch to throw to the person. Get as close to the break as you can safely, then lay flat on your stomach, distribute your weight and crawl slowly towards the hole. Stay as low as you can while you extend the rope or branch. Instruct the individual to kick their feet as you pull them towards you. Continue to pull until you have them on a safe area of the ice, then assist them to shore

Prior to venturing out on the ice it is always wise to check with the local authorities that should be able to tell you whether or not it is safe to do so. Never go out on the ice at night or during bad or warm weather.


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Written by Safeopedia Staff

Safeopedia Staff

At Safeopedia, we think safety professionals are unsung superheroes in many workplaces. We aim to support and celebrate these professionals and the work they do by providing easy access to occupational health and safety information, and by reinforcing safe work practices.

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