On August 16, 2012, the Ottawa Catholic District School Board was fined $275,000 for having violated Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act as a result of a May 2011 school classroom explosion which killed 18-year-old high school student Eric Leighton. Eric attended Mother Teresa High School in Ottawa.

On May 26, 2011, the Globe and Mail reported about a dozen high school shop students and their shop teacher were making barbeques out of steel barrels. Eric Leighton died in a hospital, hours after fumes from an oil drum exploded at his suburban high school. Eric attended an auto shop class where students were building barbecues when vapours from an empty 55-gallon drum, that may once have stored peppermint oil, ignited and blew up.

Following an Ontario Minister of Labour investigation, it was found that the barrel Eric had used had been washed out with a flammable cleaner. The barrel had been stored with its caps closed prior to the class project, allowing flammable cleaning vapours to accumulate inside the barrel. When Eric cut the barrel, a spark from the grinder ignited the vapours, causing the explosion.

The investigation also found that the school jurisdiction did not have adequate review and assessment procedures in place to ensure hot work on drums or containers could be carried out safely.

The school jurisdiction pleaded guilty for failing, as an employer, to provide information, instruction and supervision to its teacher concerning safe work practices. It also acknowledged the hazards associated with this class project.

Justice of the Peace Claudette Coulas, imposed a $250,000 fine and imposed a 25% victim fine surcharge, as required by Ontario’s Provincial Offences Act. The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.

Lessons Learned from this Unfortunate Case

This case is a reminder to Alberta school boards that they must be diligent in training their employees to identify, eliminate and report identifiable hazards and to ensure they provide a safe environment for those students under their care. Hot work on containers, including welding, grinding and cutting, is a hazardous operation. If your students are welding at school, you may wish to consult WorkSafe Alberta’s safety bulletin Welder’s Guide to the Hazards of Welding Gases and Fumes. School boards must also have appropriate review and assessment procedures in place to ensure hot work on containers can be carried out safely.

Finally, we take this opportunity to remind Alberta school jurisdictions that Alberta Services has recently revised its process for changing the content of Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code. For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the OHS Policy and Program Development Branch of Alberta Human Services will review the following parts:

  • 4 – Chemical Hazards, Biological Hazards and Harmful Substances
  • 6 – Cranes, Hoists and Lifting Devices
  • 21 – Rigging
  • 23 – Scaffolds and Temporary Work Platforms
  • 33 – Explosives
  • 36 – Mining
  • Occupational Exposure Limits for Chemical Substances

Updates to the Code will now be made on a five-year cycle. Previously, changes were made every two to three years. These updates will continue to reflect feedback from workers and employers; industry, labour and health and safety associations; and members of the public and allow stakeholders to focus on specific areas of the Code. The target for release of the next revised Code is 2015. These reviews reflect input from individual workers and employers; industry, labour, and health and safety associations; and members of the public, and will allow participants to focus on specific areas of the Code. If you wish to get involved, please contact us with your questions.