A Toronto road-worker is lucky to be alive after being trapped in molten tar for approximately one hour on September 26, 2016.

According to news reports, the worker was riding in the back of a road-repair truck when a large tank of tar tipped onto him as the vehicle was forced to come to a sudden stop.  Toronto Fire Services rescued the worker, and stated that the spill had “knocked him down and actually flowed all over him” – with the result that he sustained serious burns to his head and arms.The Ministry of Labour will no doubt investigatethe matter and determine what – if any – steps could have been taken by the employer, the job supervisor and the worker himself to prevent the incident and the resulting injuries. Whatever the outcome of that investigation, however, it seems clear that the worker was spared far more serious (and potentially fatal) injury by the protective suit that he was wearing.

The Lesson

This incident serves as a powerful reminder of the difference that personal protective equipment can make when accidents occur.  Hardhats, eye-protection, steel-toe boots, protective coveralls and the like are made available to workers for a reason; and the Occupational Health and Safety Act(the “OHSA”) stipulates that a worker must “use or wear the equipment, protective devices or clothing that the worker’s employer requires to be used or worn.”   In other words, the lesson for all workers is that protective gear isn’t optional.

This incident also reminds employers and supervisors of their compliance obligations under the OHSA, which include (a) ensuring that workers use the requisite equipment and protective devices, and (b) the broad requirement to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”

As meeting those obligations can literally be the difference between life and death, and a delinquent employer (or supervisor) should not expect leniency from the Ministry of Labour in the event that a violation is found.

Likewise, workers should not expect leniency from their supervisors and employers if they are failing to meet their obligations under the Act.  Occupational health and safety violations very often attract discipline and corrective action – and justifiably so.

The Recommendation

Any reported industrial accident (or, as the case may be, near-miss) presents the opportunity for other employers to reflect on their own compliance and to consider opportunities for improvement.

In light of this September 26 incident – and the important role that personal protective equipment (“PPE”) played in averting a more tragic outcome – my recommendation is that employers turn a critical eye to their OHSA compliance in relation to PPE.

In that regard, employers should consider the following:

  • Has the company identified the activities and processes for which PPE should be utilized in the workplace?
  • Has the company identified what PPE is required, and in what quantity(s)?
  • Is the proper PPE on-hand, accessible to workers, and in a proper state of repair?
  • Have supervisors and workers been trained on the proper use of the PPE?
  • Do supervisors understand their statutory obligation to ensure that workers under their supervision use the appropriate PPE?
  • Do workers understand that their use of appropriate PPE is mandatory, not optional?
  • Are workers in fact using the appropriate PPE?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then worker safety is at risk, and the company (and perhaps individual supervisors and workers themselves) will be exposed to legal liability.  In other words, remediation and improvement must be undertaken on an urgent basis.

It is critical that employers understand and appreciate that OHSA compliance is an ongoing and evolving exercise; and PPE is one of many important elements of achieving that goal.