‘Inherently dangerous business’ requires ‘high degree of attention to detail’ in safety training and supervision: Court

Accident not foreseeable but danger of employee working alone at night in propane facility was

Dangerous workplaces require particularly careful training and supervision, a judge has stated in convicting an Ontario propane company. The judge found a worker’s reaction to the sound of an explosion showed that he was not properly trained.

A series of massive explosions at a propane facility in Toronto in 2008 killed a worker and damaged a number of nearby buildings.

Sunrise Propane Energy Group, the operator of the propane facility, was charged with failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to the worker, and with failing to take every reasonable precaution for the protection of the worker.

The court rejected Sunrise’s submissions that, because there had been no complaints against the employee, the court could infer that the employee had been adequately trained. The court also found that because the worker ran in the direction of the explosion rather than away from it, the only rational inference was that he had not been properly trained.

Further, the court held that the employee had not been properly supervised. The employer did not take the simple step of giving the employee a phone number to call if he had any questions, nor did any supervisors call to check in on him. The employee should not have been put in charge of the propane yard on the night in question, given his lack of experience.

Sunrise also argued it had proved due diligence because the accident was not foreseeable. The court rejected that argument and noted the question was not whether the accident was foreseeable, but whether a reasonable person would have foreseen that having this worker working alone at night was dangerous.

Referring to the dangerous nature of this workplace, the court stated:

“I am sure that the defendants were well meaning, to a degree, but in an inherently dangerous business such as this there must be a high degree of attention to detail and processes in place that address day-to-day issues, particularly instructing, training and supervision for people handling this very dangerous fuel. People make mistakes and processes assist in mitigating any damage that arises when employees make those mistakes.”

The company was also found guilty, after the same trial, of charges under the Environmental Protection Act.

This case demonstrates that courts will hold employers that operate safety-sensitive businesses to high safety standards, and training and supervision practices will be carefully scrutinized.

For more information see:

Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. Sunrise Propane Energy Group Inc., 2013 CarswellOnt 9062 (Ont. C.J.).

Adrian Miedema is a partner with Dentons Canada LLP in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 863-4678 or [email protected]. Adrian's discussion of this case also appears in the Dentons blog www.occupationalhealthandsafetylaw.com.

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