Toluene Toxicity Leads to Death

A recent Herald Scotland Article reports that Xervon Palmers Ltd has been fined approximately $412,000 (Cdn) due a series of errors in judgement that ended with the death of a 44 year old worker inside one of the legs of the Tay rail bridge.  This judgement comes almost six years after the incident and, though it reflects a severe punishment, the fact that it has taken so long shows just how poorly understood the dangers of confined spaces can be.

This case is unusual in that there wasn't a failure to recognize risks or a small oversight in terms of PPE, at least not in the entirety.  Rather, careful consideration of the space by numerous individuals with a background in health and safety caused them to deem the space not a "confined space" and, as such, did not warrant proper safety precautions and PPE considerations.

Now, if we consider the space utilizing our local BC definitions, one might argue that this was, obviously, a confined space and thus prevented this tragedy but hindsight is often 20/20 and all the second-guessing in the world won't bring this worker back.

Rather, the point that is intended here is two-fold: as a worker, you should independently assess your own risk when working in dangerous areas and you should know that you have the right to refuse unsafe work.  The fine that has been levied against the company is no small amount but it certainly seems like a pittance when compared to the value of a worker's life.


When assessing your own risks, it is important to know what you are possibly going to be exposed to and plan accordingly.  Toluene is a chemical which presents serious risks to workers and which can cause impaired judgement due to neurological impacts.  This means that the time to assess and mitigate your risks is before possible exposure, not once you are already in danger.  This also follows logically with most noxious chemicals and, indeed, with those that have delayed onset symptoms.  Most of us would refuse unprotected work in a space with known contamination of asbestos but not everyone would ask whether there was a possibility if we were not briefed beforehand.


Bottom line: it is your health and life so do not blindly trust a piece of paper that is handed to you.

Be proactive, be smart and, more than anything, be safe.

Matt Sandrin
Matt Sandrin