Industry leaders are usually leaders for a reason: they tend to do things better than their competitors. Leaders naturally set the standard for those who follow them – but sometimes they get complacent, and the standard leaves them behind. The recent decision of Judge Hougestol in R. v. Precision Drilling Canada Limited, 2015 ABPC 115 (PDF) serves as a stark reminder that even an industry leader can never assume that its safety practices are the state of the art.
Precision Drilling Canada Limited ("Precision") is the largest drilling contractor in Canada with hundreds of rigs, up to 9,000 employees, and significant international operations. In 2010, Precision floorhand Frazier Peterson was killed when the torqued drill string he was working on was lifted clear of its mechanical brake, causing the string and its attachments to spin out of control and strike him in the head. Precision was charged with failing to eliminate or control an existing or potential hazard, and failing to ensure Mr. Peterson's safety. In its defence, Precision argued that it had followed applicable industry standards and satisfied the applicable standard of care.
Evidence showed that the accident that killed Mr. Peterson could have been prevented by means of a simple device: a mechanical interlock that would have prevented the drill string from being lifted clear of its brake while under torque. Such a device was in fact being used by some of Precision's smaller competitors, and Precision itself engineered and implemented a similar mechanism after the accident. At the time of the accident, Precision maintained that it had no knowledge of the interlock device. However, given the known risk and its severity, the simplicity of the device, and the ease with which it was designed and implemented by Precision after the accident, the judge held that Precision, in failing to implement an engineered solution before the accident, had failed to meet the standard of care required of it. He found Precision guilty on both counts, noting that Precision "may have fallen victim to their own size and expertise in assuming that they defined industry standards".
Safety standards are always evolving. Although the largest companies in an industry may often be at the forefront of innovation in safety devices and procedures, this is not always the case. Where a feasible solution to a serious problem is available, a defendant in an OHS case will be expected to have adopted it, or to provide a credible reason why not – especially where the solution, as in this case, is "cheap, quick and easy".