It has been more than 7 years since a series of colossal explosions at Sunrise Propane lit up Toronto’s night sky, killing one worker and forcing the evacuation of thousands of neighbouring residents.
Investigators traced the origin of the tragedy to vapours being ignited during a dangerous (and illegal) truck-to-truck transfer of propane; and prosecutors subsequently brought a total of 10 charges against the company and two of its directors, Shay Ben-Moshe and Valery Belahov, under the Environmental Protection Act (“EPA”) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”). In 2013 the company and Messrs. Ben-Moshe and Belahov were found guilty of 9 of those 10 charges – i.e. 7 violations of the EPA and 2 violations of the OHSA.
Following a lengthy sentencing process, the court handed down its decision earlier this week, and assessed fines totalling $5.3 million – i.e. a $5.1 million fine against the company, and a $100,000 fine against each of Messrs. Ben-Moshe and Belahov.
Of the total fine against the company, $280,000 (plus a 25% victim fine surcharge) was in relation to the two OHSA violations – i.e. failing to “provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker”, and failing to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”
To say that this workplace disaster has had far-reaching consequences would be to understate the point. In addition to the Sunrise worker who lost his life, a firefighter responding to the blaze suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes, as the explosions blew out windows and flung debris far-and-wide across the blocks around Sunrise’s facility – which itself was utterly destroyed. As observed by Madam Justice Chapman in the sentencing decision, “The sheer magnitude of this event was unprecedented in Ontario at the time.”
The Sunrise incident – together with its consequences, and now the resulting penalties – presents a dramatic reminder of how high the stakes can be in matters related to health and safety, and of how important it is for employers to undertake their occupational health and safety (“OHS”) obligations with the utmost diligence.
In that regard, OHS due diligence must be both a “top – down” and a “bottom – up” exercise that involves workers, supervisors and executives at all levels of an organization being focused on the common goals of reducing risk and promoting safety. Avoiding tragedies like the Sunrise explosion demands a strong safety culture in which all workplace parties mindfully and effectively work together to fulfil their OHS obligations.