Years before two workers were exposed to chlorine and hospitalized, the City of Abbotsford was repeatedly told it needed to improve the safety of its employees who handled the potentially deadly gas at its water plants.
In January, WorkSafeBC revealed that it had hit the city with a fine of more than $300,000 after an incident at its Norrish Creek water plant. But documents obtained by The News show that fine came because the city failed to “exercise due diligence” by not acting properly after several previous chlorine exposure events. (Go to the end of this story to read the documents.)
On July 6, 2017, two workers were exposed to chlorine at the city’s Norrish Creek water plant. (Although the initial report suggested the incident took place last year, it in fact occurred in 2017, while the fine was levied in 2019.)
The workers had their breathing masks on, but hadn’t connected their regulators as they discussed how to replace two large chlorine tanks.
When one of the employees went to bleed the chlorine gas from a line, “he heard a louder than normal sound, then tasted the chlorine,” according to a WorkSafeBC document obtained by The News. Both workers were able to leave the building. They assessed themselves, then re-entered the building and finished their task. Once the job was done, they called an ambulance, which took them to hospital, where they were treated and released.
WorkSafeBC investigators found a range of safety issues. Some, the investigators learned, were repeats of problems previously identified in a series of chlorine events between 2011 and 2013.
In 2011, an electrician at the city’s Cannel Lake water treatment plant smelled chlorine and left the building. But he then re-entered while “holding his breath to shut off the pumps.” A year later, the city had not yet complied with recommendations meant to prevent another issue.
In 2013, two more chlorine releases took place at the same treatment plant. Those incidents prompted WorkSafeBC to demand a meeting with Abbotsford’s city manager and director of human resources. In 2013, the city told WorkSafeBC investigators that it was working on an Exposure Control Plan that it hoped to complete that October. But when investigators arrived to look into the 2017 Norrish Creek exposure event more than three years later, they found the plans had still not been completed.
That 2017 incident prompted WorkSafeBC to issue the city 12 different orders regarding a range of issues. The city was cited for having not completed a required risk assessment, a lack of safe work procedures for the job, and for deficiencies or absences of other safeguards regarding breathing equipment and chlorine monitors and on-site machinery. Sufficient training also hadn’t been provided to all city workers required to wear breathing equipment.
WorkSafeBC felt a large fine was necessary in order “to motivate the employer to comply.”
Penalties are based on the payroll of the offender. The City of Abbotsford’s large payroll leaves it facing a commensurately large fines to motivate compliance. If the city re-offends in a similar way, the penalty will double.
A chlorine exposure control plan is now in place at Norrish Creek, while the Cannel Lake plant now uses a different method to treat the water, a city spokesperson said.
Mayor Henry Braun said the city has made strides on increasing worker safety in recent years.
The city had such high WorkSafeBC claim rates in 2014 that it ended up paying WorkSafeBC premiums 60 per cent higher than the base rate. In 2016, as the city looked to hire a health and safety co-ordinator, Braun declared the city’s safety record to be “less than stellar.”
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