Attention to workplace safety saves lives and money for employers

Recent cases show employers can face hefty fines under health and safety legislation if workers are endangered

Occupational health and safety is a major concern for employers these days, not just for the sake of employees, but also because of the consequences employers can face. Across the country, courts are making employers pay if they fail to live up to their obligation of providing a safe workplace under occupational health and safety legislation and workers are killed or injured as a result. Recent cases show courts aren’t afraid to impose significant fines on employers found to be endangering their workers.

Alberta employers ignored safety procedures

Alberta companies in particular have been nailed with large fines after courts dished out $1,720,000 in fines to 12 companies for unsafe workplace practices in 2007, the most in any year yet. The crackdown seems to be continuing in 2008, as two companies were nailed for a total of $650,000 combined by the Provincial Court of Alberta in January. On May 29, 2004, a worker for Slave Lake, Alta.-based DSI Construction Ltd. fell more than four metres from a rolling scaffold onto a concrete floor at a construction site, killing him. The ensuing investigation discovered DSI hadn’t properly trained its workers in safety procedures, it didn’t provide written copies of proper procedures and plans to its workers, it didn’t inspect the scaffolding or ensure a fall protection plan was in place and it allowed the worker to remain on the rolling scaffold while it was moved. All of these were violations of the act.

In January 2008, the Provincial Court of Alberta fined DSI $350,000 including a $5,000 fine and $345,000 to be paid over five years to the University of Alberta faculty of engineering’s safety and risk management program.

Also in January, Wainwright, Alta.-based Fitzgerald Construction 2001 Inc. was found liable for a Dec. 13, 2004, incident in which a worker became entangled in a pulley while removing excess gravel under a gravel crusher. It was determined Fitzgerald hadn’t implemented proper safety procedures when the pulley was operated without a guard between it and the worker. The court levied a $300,000 fine on Fitzgerald, $288,500 of which was assigned to the Alberta Worker’s Health Centre, a non-profit society that assists workers in improving workplace health and safety.

Lack of safety features cost Ontario workers their lives

Ontario companies have felt the financial pain from health and safety violations recently as well. Wescast Industries Inc. is a manufacturer and supplier of vehicle engine components in Brantford, Ont. On July 14, 2006, a Wescast factory worker was in a steel melting area working with “charge cars,” or vehicles that deliver scrap metal to furnaces. Another worker was controlling the charge cars from another area and couldn’t see where the first worker was located. The first worker became caught between the furnace’s hood and a moving steel plate on a charge car and was fatally crushed.

Wescast pled guilty to not ensuring the moving parts didn’t endanger its workers or ensuring the operator could see the entire area where the charge cars were operating. It was also found to have not made sure the car was operated according to instructions. On Jan. 23, 2008, the Ontario Court of Justice ordered Wescast to pay $240,000 for its health and safety violations.

On July 21, 2006, a warehouse employee of Mississauga, Ont.-based SCM Supply Chain Management Inc., a third-party distribution management company, was using a battery bull, a machine designed to change batteries in large equipment used to move large objects. He became trapped in the machine and suffered fatal head injuries. The battery bull was found to have no defects but had no guards or other devices to protect workers from its moving parts, as Ontario’s act demands. After SCM pled guilty, the court fined the company $200,000 in a decision on Nov. 27, 2007.

Workers survive but TTC fined $165,000 in subway tunnel incident

On Feb. 7, 2006, seven Toronto Transit Commission workers (TTC) and their foreman were repairing the concrete liner of subway tunnels. They were using a flatbed subway car that held a gasoline generator and two gasoline-powered power washers. During their shift, the workers were overcome by fumes and it was discovered they were exposed to carbon dioxide levels 40 times the normal occupational exposure limit. The ministry of labour found the TTC had violated the act by allowing internal combustion engines to be operated in an enclosed structure without sufficient ventilation. The workers survived but the TTC was fined $165,000 and a general superintendent faces a trial in March 2008.

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