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Can Employers be Fined under Safety Laws for Injuries to a Non-Employee?

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Can an employer be convicted and fined under the Occupational Health and Safety Act for an accident that resulted in the death of a non-employee?  A recent case suggests that the answer is “yes”.

The Ottawa Catholic District School Board has been fined $275,000 under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act after a student died from an explosion in a school classroom.

Students were making barbeques out of steel barrels. A student was cutting a barrel with a hand grinder, and the barrel exploded. Tragically, the student was killed.  The Ministry of Labour investigation found that the barrel had been washed out with a flammable cleaner that produced vapours which were ignited by a spark from the grinder.

The school board pleaded guilty to failing, as an employer, to provide information, instruction and supervision to the teacher – note, not the student – concerning safe work practices and recognition of the hazards associated with the class project.

Although this case involved a guilty plea, and thus did not result in detailed reasons from the court, the case shows that employers can be liable even where a non-employee was injured or killed, if the Occupational Health and Safety Act is otherwise breached.  Here, the employer’s breach was a failure to properly train the teacher – an employee of the school board – on the hazards associated with the barbecue project.  It did not matter that a non-employee was killed; the school still violated the Act, and the amount of the fine was clearly related to the severity of the harm to the non-employee – the tragic death of a student.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour’s press release may be viewed here.