Hazardous Substances

Employers and Employees Beware!

It is not always possible to tell if a substance is hazardous just by looking at it.

Always consider a caution note provided by a manufacturer as a serious matter, even if the product, material or substance may appear innocuous.

Failure to do so, may lead to fatal accidents.

For instance, polyethylene foam normally used as packaging material. Harmless…or is it?

On , a truck driver died as a result of the injuries he sustained when an explosion projected him out of a trailer. In this case, it was determined at the Coroner's Inquest that polyethylene foam made with a flammable hydrocarbon blowing agent had been stored in the unventilated trailer over a warm weekend.

How can a packaging material become deadly?

Normally, by the time polyethylene foam gets to consumers, the product is harmless. However, when produced with a flammable hydrocarbon blowing agent, and fresh from the manufacturer, it may be a different story.

In this case, isobutane was used as the blowing agent to produce the polyethylene foam. Although most of the blowing agent is removed prior to shipping, it continues to be released at a slower rate, for an undetermined period of time. The foam manufacturer had informed the purchaser and the shipper that, because of the off-gassing, it was preferable to use a ventilated trailer. The truck driver who picked up the load was also required to sign a caution advising him of the potential presence of the flammable blowing agent.

Unfortunately, this information did not get to the driver who was killed. He was told the trailer was empty. Because the trailer was unventilated and because of the warm weekend, the rate of off-gassing of the isobutane increased, and it accumulated inside the trailer to reach its explosive range. When the employee entered the trailer, a source of ignition (a spark, a match or a cigarette) caused the explosion.


It is the employer's duty to ensure that the health and safety at work of every person employed by the employer is protected.

Where there is a likelihood that the safety or health of an employee in a work place is or may be endangered by exposure to a hazardous substance, the employer shall:

  • appoint a qualified person to carry out an investigation;
  • ensure that each employee is made aware of every known and foreseeable health or safety hazard in the area where the employee works;
  • develop and implement an employee education program with respect to hazard prevention and control at the work place.

Moreover with the revised Part II of the Canada Labour Code , the employer must ensure that employees who have supervisory or managerial responsibilities are adequately trained in health and safety and are informed of their responsibilities under Part II.

Employees also have the duty to report to the employer any thing or circumstance in a work place that is likely to be hazardous to the health or safety of the employee, or that of other employees or other persons granted access to the work place by the employer.

In the case mentioned above, seventeen charges were laid against the employer on August 28, 1998. On April 27, 1999, the employer pleaded guilty to three counts and was fined $95,000.

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