Sunrise Propane: hard lessons for everyone

May 08, 2014

propane explosionThe infamous 2008 Sunrise Propane explosions in Toronto's Downsview neighbourhood continue to reverberate as explosions occurred on May 7 at a propane facility in nearby Brampton. Earlier that same day, an Ontario judge began hearing sentencing submissions involving Sunrise Propane directors who had been found guilty of nine offences, including three under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Sentencing submissions will continue in October.

Two people died as a result of the Sunrise Propane incident and thousands more were evacuated. "It all could have been prevented if the company had been better prepared," says Scott Hood, WSPS's manager of consulting services, GTA - West. An expert in emergency preparedness, Hood sees in the Sunrise Propane story at least eight prevention opportunities for any workplace. But first, the incident and its aftermath.

Sunrise Propane operated a facility supplying propane and industrial gases in Downsview, ON. At 3:40 a.m. on August 10, 2008, a contracted propane hauler performing a truck-to-truck transfer noticed what looked like fog about 18 metres away. He alerted Parminder Singh Saini, a part-time employee. They saw the fog - a propane vapour cloud - expand, and then heard a small explosion. The hauler started running away from the cloud, telling the employee not to go towards it. Soon after, the cloud exploded. A second large propane explosion followed minutes later. Lesser explosions continued until daylight.

"If any business regardless of size doesn't do its due diligence, people can be injured or killed."

Scott Hood, Manager of Consulting Services, WSPS

The explosions led to two deaths: employee Parminder Singh Saini, and Bob Leek, a district chief of emergency planning, who died of cardiac arrest the next day while on scene. About 200 firefighters had been called in to battle the resulting five-alarm fire.

The explosions also discharged contaminants: heat, vibration, sound, gas vapour, smoke, asbestos, dust, metal fragments, and other material. Asbestos and large metal fragments from the exploded tanks were found up to a kilometer away. The cleanup was estimated at $1.3 million, half borne by Ontario taxpayers.

How it affected the community

The explosions and dispersal of contaminants caused extensive damage and hardship:

  • a middle-of-the-night evacuation of 12,000 residents living within a 1.6 km radius.
  • personal injuries, such as cuts, bruises and burns, sustained by neighbours in nearby homes. Six people were sent to hospital, 18 admitted themselves to emergency clinics, and 40 were treated on site.
  • damage to neighbouring homes, including shattered windows, blown-in garage doors, and structural damage. A year later, some homes were still uninhabitable.
  • lost wages and out-of-pocket expenses for temporary shelter and clothing.
  • structural damage to 2 local elementary schools and local businesses.
  • business closings, resulting in lost revenue and lost shifts. One business, a car dealership, was completely destroyed.

What we can all take away from this story

"If any business regardless of size doesn"t do its due diligence, people can be injured or killed," says Scott Hood. "It's all about being prepared." Drawing on the trial findings, Hood offers the following suggestions for any workplace regardless of size or industry sector.

  1. If you conduct a thorough hazard assessment, you will know how to protect your workers and your business. "Look at the people, the equipment, the materials, the environment, and the workflow," says Hood. "Try to figure out what might happen, what could happen, what's feasible and realistic to happen, and then take precautions to prevent it from happening. It gives you a good starting point to say 'Wow, we've got work to do,' or 'It looks like we're in good shape.'"
  2. Don't underestimate possible repercussions if something goes wrong. If an injured employee is away for an extended period, what are you going to do about that person in that position? Is there someone else who can do that job? How much productivity could be lost while dealing with the fallout? How long will an investigation take? "It may last for weeks," warns Hood.
  3. Look at short- and long-term risk. Are there any latency issues? Hood provides two examples:
    • loading boxes from a conveyor belt onto a skid. "If I'm doing that job for the better part of an 8-hour shift, I could strain or pull something, or sustain a repetitive strain injury. What can be done to alleviate or remove the hazard? Could the skid be placed on a scissor lift so the worker can move boxes on a level plane?"
    • squirting packing foam into a box. Is the workplace properly ventilated? Is the person wearing personal protective equipment? Without precautions, the person could appear fine for years, then develop a health complaint based on isocyanate exposure.
  4. The greater the risk, the more precautions you need. The judge noted that the defendants failed to prove they were diligent in overseeing their truck drivers. Furthermore, there was no evidence of
    • ongoing training regarding safety and compliance with new regulations
    • a system for updating drivers on new safety procedures or regulatory changes
    • drivers’ awareness of safety concerns regarding truck-to-truck transfers.
  5. It's not just about prevention. It’s also about responding effectively in an emergency. "Depending on the hazards, it may be more prudent to evacuate and call 911 then try to put out the fire yourself," says Hood. "This type of decision is best made in advance, based on your hazard assessment.”"
  6. Have a system in place to ensure compliance with OHS requirements. "This extends beyond the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations. Is there a CSA standard you ought to be aware of? A UL code? Any other guidelines or best practices that apply to your workplace?"
  7. Ensure workers have the necessary training and supervision. The contracted propane hauler testified he didn’t know the emergency procedures for shutting off the truck's propane valves. A leak in a hose used during the truck-to-truck transfer is believed to be the source of the propane vapour cloud. Also, Parminder Singh Saini died after running toward the cloud. If he had received proper training or if a supervisor were there to advise him, Saini would have known to run away from it and call for help.
  8. Maintain training records and keep them secure. Sunrise Propane claimed they provided training, but the records had been destroyed. The judge wasn't convinced, and among other charges found Sunrise Propane guilty of failing to provide information, instruction and supervision, contrary to s. 25(2) of the act.

How we can help

WSPS has an extensive list of resources, from e-courses for workers and managers to on-site hazard assessments and consultations. Check them out.