Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Safety conviction in NS asbestos case

An interesting OHS court case came out of Nova Scotia last year. Basically some employees found attic insulation they thought might contain asbestos, the employer had it tested and found this to be the case but then the safety supervisor did not take any action, allowing the employees (and members of the public) to be exposed to this carcinogen for months more.

There are a couple of interesting angles to the case. The first is the case provides an inside look at how an organization with an appropriate OHS infrastructure can still drop the ball. This is relevant because many OHS systems (e.g., Alberta’s partners in injury reduction program) are mostly about having the right paperwork on file and the right system in place. Whether the system actually works is largely ignored and rarely assessed.

In this (not unusual) case, the safety supervisor (knowing better) just failed to act on credible information about an obvious hazard. Consequently, the other employees (who did the right things) are at higher risk of developing a wide variety of (generally fatal) asbestos-related diseases. The consequence for the supervisor? A $1000 fine. Interestingly, the Department of Community Services also got dinged $10,000.

The second is that, through its inaction, the employer exposed a significant number of tenants in the low-income housing unit to the asbestos in the attic (although the degree of the exposure is unknown). That is to say, this case shows that the distinction between occupational and environmental hazards is often artificial and meaningless.

-- Bob Barnetson

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