A recent court decision to fine a Toronto-based property maintenance company for failing to protect a crew of workers from exposure to carbon monoxide, one of whom died, reveals that formal health and worker safety training is still lacking in the facilities maintenance industry.
The incident occurred at a condominium building in 2014 as a cleaning crew power washed an underground parking garage. Six workers were using four gasoline-powered washers to perform the work, and the power washers emit carbon monoxide (CO) gas. According to the Ministry of Labour who investigated the case, while the workers were washing, the internal exhaust fans in the garage stopped working. The building superintendent told the company supervisor that an electrician should be on site to repair the fans; however, the crew continued to work with portable fans in use.
As a result, workers were taken to the hospital, treated for carbon monoxide exposure and later released. One worker who had collapsed on site was later pronounced dead. Further investigation found both the work crew and its supervisor had not received formal health and safety training on carbon monoxide poisoning risk and prevention, and only a few had received Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training.
Ground Maintenance Cleaning Contractors Inc. pleaded guilty and was fined $75,000. The court also imposed a 25-per-cent victim fine surcharge as required by the Provincial Offences Act.
Lorraine Davison, senior project manager of chemical services at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), says employers need to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers and provide training on how to work safely.
“Every facility manager has responsibilities under the law for health and safety; they need to ensure that workers are aware of possible hazards in the workplace as well as actual hazards,” says Davison. “With respect to carbon monoxide, they need to know where carbon monoxide can come from, and how to prevent exposure, which would be proper ventilation and, perhaps, installing alarms.”
Carbon monoxide poisoning
“Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer—there are no good warning signs; it is a gas that you cannot see, smell or taste,” Davison adds. “Employers and workers need to be aware of sources of carbon monoxide so they can prevent the problem.”
Sources run the gamut. Carbon monoxide is generated by burning fuel, such as propane, gasoline, diesel fuel or wood where gases are not properly vented. Indoor areas, such as storage or parking garages that house fuel-powered vehicles or equipment are of great concern, along with areas that store furnaces, stoves, ovens and fireplaces.
While signs and symptoms vary according to the individual, they appear as flu symptoms: headache, tiredness, nausea and dizziness at first. High exposures can quickly lead to more serious health effects, such as confusion, chest pains, vomiting, collapse and possibly brain damage and death.
Carbon monoxide consequences
Facility managers need to show that both workers and supervisors have been trained on health and safety concerns around carbon monoxide, and how to work safely with it. Even if a manager hires a contractor to complete work, he or she is still responsible for workplace safety. As a safeguard, ensure that contractors have knowledge of health and safety and are registered with a provincial workers compensation board, such as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in Ontario.
“The contractor may have responsibility, but if you’re hiring someone and something goes wrong, like the contractor brings in equipment that generates carbon monoxide, the facility manager can still be responsible,” Davison stresses.
Consequences are likely to unfold. Workplace health and safety inspectors can write orders that the facility manager must comply with, such as unexpected costs, or, if there is any concern, they can put in a stop work order.
“And if a poisoning incident or fatality happens, there is usually an investigation that could lead to charges against the facility manager,” adds Davison.
Health and safety training
Workers die on the job every day, according to CCOHS. The most recent statistics from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) show that in 2014, 919 workplace deaths were recorded in Canada – more than 2.5 deaths every single day. In addition, 239,643 claims were accepted for lost time due to a work-related injury or disease
“The most basic duty of an employer and supervisor, by law, is that they must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstance,” says Marty White, communications officer for the Workers Health and Safety Centre, acknowledged by the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) as a recognized training service provider. “Training and information is certainly reasonable.”
A first step is ensuring all supervisors and managers are trained in general health and safety, so they understand their own responsibilities laid out in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS). Once supervisors know their obligations under the law, they will better understand what they need to do to train employees.
In Ontario, for example, a good resource is CCOHS’ Health and Safety Awareness for Supervisors Course.
Competent supervisors are critical to a workplace; they know OHS regulations that apply to their work, and understand potential and actual dangers. Workers must know:
- Hazards that are in the workplace or that could occur in the workplace
- How to work safely and not to endanger themselves or others
- To report possible hazards to the employer
- To follow safe working procedures
- What to do in case of emergencies
If employers chose to use a training services provider, they should use caution.
Employers should not use a “fly by night” training service provider, says White. At the end of the day, its employers and supervisors who are accountable for ensuring that their workers are more knowledgeable and can recognize risks related to carbon monoxide and any other chemical and biological agents.
Effective workplace prevention programs
Employers must prepare a written OHS policy and develop and maintain an OHS program to implement that policy. CCOHS has some free resources called OSH Answers that can help any facility manager write a policy and develop a program to meet their needs.
Programs are plans that can help to prevent workplace incidents from happening include key items:
- Health and safety requirements and procedures
- Identifying and controlling hazards
- Health and safety training
- Workplace inspections
- Reporting workplace incidents/accidents
- Emergency procedures
- Medical and first aid requirements
Awareness acquired through training will help managers and supervisors know what to implement into a prevention program, such as conducting ongoing inspections and maintenance of systems. Regarding carbon monoxide, in order to prevent occurrences, facility managers need to make sure they’re properly installing and maintaining equipment, and properly ventilating combustion gases.
“It sounds like a lot, but say you’re installing a new furnace. You have to make sure the combustion gases get vented outside,” says Davison. “If you hire someone who does poor work, you could actually be putting someone at risk.”
In some provinces, like Ontario, building and fire codes require installation of carbon monoxide detectors in buildings where people are sleeping—from nursing homes and hospitals to other residential buildings. Other facility managers may be required by law to have carbon monoxide detectors. Either way, alarms are not foolproof and should be able to work through a power failure.
“You could end up with someone bringing in a propane heater indoors and creating a carbon monoxide situation,” adds Davison.
Incidents from exposure are vast and varied. For instance, security staff at the front door of a facility could be exposed if a loading dock is close by and ventilation systems aren’t working properly.
“If you’re in a building, and you have a delivery truck that is spewing out exhaust, it might not cross your mind as a facility manager, or anyone responsible for a workplace, that is a hazard your cleaning or security staff may be exposed to,” White adds. “Employers and supervisors need occupational health and safety training as much as workers because they have the most significant duties and they need to understand that carbon monoxide, for instance, is a hazard and they have to take every reasonable precaution.”