A Thunder Bay company that supplies winter-road grooming equipment to First Nations in northwestern Ontario says it's found a way to make ice road construction a bit safer.

Two men have died in separate incidents in recent weeks after the snow groomers they were using to build winter roads in the northwest broke through the ice.

The manager of Loch Lomond Equipment Sales said all his machines are now retrofitted with an escape hatch in the roof.

"The issue is when the machine is going down and you haven't opened the door soon enough to get out … water pressure … [holds] the door shut," Rick Prior said. "So that's why we put the escape hatches in."

In recent years, it's been harder to build ice roads to remote communities, he noted.

"We're having winter start a little bit later, and we're having spring come a little earlier. And, the pressure's on to get the roads built [to bring in supplies]."

No road is worth a life

The chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug said no road is worth a life.

Donny Morris was reacting to news that two men have died this season while building winter roads.

They went through the ice in separate incidents on their snow grooming equipment.

Morris said winter roads are important links for First Nations communities, but they have become less and less reliable in recent years.

"When you have to work on behalf of the community to build a winter road so the prices can come down and people can get stuff into the communities, there's no reason you should lose lives over that," he said.

Morris blamed a warming climate for the new dangers on winter roads.

Taking precautions

Prior said some communities are purchasing lighter and smaller machines to start off their winter roads with the hope they are less likely to break through the ice.

People building ice roads in northwestern Ontario have to take the same precautions as snowmobilers, and know the ice thickness and conditions, he added.

"Normally [during] the first few passes they keep the doors wide open," he said.

"They've got a couple spotters out there on the ice on foot that are watching for cracks and signs of danger until they've made a few passes over the same area and they're confident that the machine's going to be OK."

A typical, full-sized snow groomer weighs about 7,200 kilograms and has wide tracks to help distribute the weight.

Smaller machines, which are used as an alternative to get over thinner ice, weigh about 680 kilograms.