Canada

Eastway explosion: Smaller businesses need more safety training and support

All industrial accidents are the result of a sequence of non-random events which come together in a tragic way. Generally, these lead-up events are preventable, but are often not recognized at the time, writes Thomas Tenkate.

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The horrific explosion and fire that occurred at Eastway Tank last week, which has resulted in the death of six workers, is a tragic reminder of the importance of workplace health and safety and the challenges faced by small- and medium-sized businesses in ensuring that their employees are protected.

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These businesses are the backbone of the nation. Nearly 98 per cent of all businesses in Canada have under 100 employees, and nearly two per cent have 100-to-500 employees. Most Canadians are therefore employed by small- or medium-sized businesses. However, from an occupational health and safety perspective, these businesses experience serious hazards and their employees have a higher risk of injury than employees of large businesses. In fact, accident data show that for developed countries, the risk of fatal accidents in small businesses is at least double that for larger companies.

Smaller businesses have less ability to control their health and safety risks for many reasons, including inadequate human and financial resources, closer and generally less formal working relationships between employees and their employer (which is both a positive and a negative), and the high cost of regulatory compliance.

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At this stage it is hard to speculate about the cause of the Eastway tragedy, but all industrial accidents are the result of a sequence of non-random events which come together in a tragic way. Generally, these lead-up events are preventable, but are often not recognized at the time.

Aerial view of the scene of the explosion and fire at Eastway Tank, Pump and Meter Ltd. on Merivale Road.
Aerial view of the scene of the explosion and fire at Eastway Tank, Pump and Meter Ltd. on Merivale Road. Photo by Ottawa Police Service /jpg

Under occupational health and safety regulations in each province, employers are required to identify all the hazards in the workplace, assess whether employees are exposed to these hazards, and, if there is exposure, implement appropriate control and prevention measures. The context of the exposure is important in determining whether the hazard poses a risk to the employee and whether this risk is acceptable or not.An easy-to-understand acronym for this process is RACE: recognition of hazards, assessment of risk, control implementation, and evaluation of the effectiveness of the controls.

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In the case of Eastway Tank, clearly identified hazards relate to the manufacture and servicing of tanker trucks. These include welding and the handling of flammable liquids, and hazardous scenarios such as the presence of empty fuel tanks, which are highly flammable due to fuel vapours.

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The RACE process highlights the importance of identifying such hazards within the workplace. This should be done in a systematic way by the employer, but employees and supervisors have an important role to play too in identifying hazards associated with the tasks they are doing. When it comes to industrial accidents, it’s important to recognize early the changes in workplace context/systems/processes and the hazards associated with these changes, and particularly by workers undertaking specific tasks. The best way to do this is through ongoing training of employees so that hazard identification becomes second-nature. Supervisors are also critical as they can identify hazards or incorrect work practices which workers may be blinded to or unaware of.

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An ongoing challenge in occupational health and safety is how to best support small- and medium-sized businesses to implement the RACE process more effectively. Much of my own research has involved developing tools and resources to help employers and workers identify hazards and assess risks in simple, context-specific ways.

The Eastway Tank tragedy is, unfortunately, another example of why we need to substantially improve health and safety practices within, and provide better support for, small- and medium-sized businesses. Canadian workers need to have safe workplaces, so that at the end of the day, they come home healthy and safe to their family and friends.

Thomas Tenkate is an Associate Professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University. He is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional, and a Certified Safety Professional, and his work involves assessing and managing health and safety risks of workers.

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