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

Dangerous workplaces require particularly careful training and supervision, a judge has stated in convicting a propane company.  The judge found that 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 Inc., 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 him 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 that it had proved due diligence because the accident was not foreseeable. The court rejected that argument and noted that 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.

R. v.  Sunrise Propane Energy Group Inc., 2013 ONCJ 358 (CanLII)

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Adrian Miedema

About Adrian Miedema

Adrian is a partner in the Toronto Employment group of Dentons Canada LLP. He advises and represents public- and private-sector employers in employment, health and safety and human rights matters. He appears before employment tribunals and all levels of the Ontario courts on behalf of employers. He also advises employers on strategic and risk management considerations in employment policy and contracts.

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