Recently in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) a devastating explosion and fire occurred at an industrial propane facility. Several significant injuries, including fatal, and property damage resulted. The event garnered widespread media and government attention, which suffice it to say, was not positive. The incident demonstrates just how important it is for companies to take measures in order to prevent and prepare for emergencies.

The explosion took place at approximately 4:00 a.m. on August 10, 2008, starting with a large explosion, followed by smaller explosions and an ensuing fire. Metal and other debris was propelled into the air causing damage to the surrounding area. Since the facility was located in close proximity to a residential neighbourhood and local businesses, considerable damage to those buildings was unavoidable due to the extent of the explosion. Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate from their homes, and streets were blocked off for days until firefighters and governmental regulators were able to put out the fire, investigate and ensure the area was safe to reenter. The investigation of the incident is still on-going, and the cause is still uncertain at this point.

This incident is an example of why having an effective Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) program as part of an organization’s Occupational Health and Safety Management System (OHSMS) is critical. First and foremost, the OHSMS and EPR program should address how this type of emergency (and others) can be avoided. The program should also identify how the emergency will be managed and put to an end as soon as possible. Clear communication with employees, the public, neighbouring businesses, emergency responders, and the media is incredibly important in this process to prevent or minimize all types of losses.

In the event of a serious emergency, it is quite likely that regulatory authorities will be involved. Along with that comes the possibility of legal liability and enforcement if non-compliance with applicable laws and negligence is found. Civil litigation against the organization (and/or individuals within the organization) can also ensue, not to mention negative public perception. Organizations, do not find out the hard way. Ask yourselves if you really are prepared for an emergency. If you know your EPR program is lacking, or worse – non-existent, now is as better time than ever to work on improving the program.