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Legal issues and concerns involving chemical-related accidents at public swimming pools

Pool companies have a duty to protect swimmers and others in the pool area from potential chemical dangers.

By Donald G. Kidd, BA, LLB

The gas hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t breathe,” said Donald MacLenna after a dangerous chlorine accident at St. Catherines, Ont.’s Lion Dunc Pool in 2012. Bathers were enjoying the pool when a worker accidently poured 90 L (23.7 gal) of chlorine into a tank containing muriatic acid.

This produced a toxic gas cloud that filled the pool area and was seen billowing out of windows and doors. The toxic spill affected 180 people, sent 12 to hospital, and resulted in a $10-million class action lawsuit against the City of St. Catherines and the company that serviced the pool. This is a clear example of the legal backlash pool operators and companies can face in response to a chlorine accident.

The aquatics industry needs to protect itself from liability during all stages of chemical handling as the industry’s reliance on chlorine poses unique challenges. This article will outline the necessary steps aquatic industry members should consider to shield themselves against claims from workers and/or the public with regards to chemical-related accidents.

How to protect your business

Being the target of a lawsuit after a chlorine accident can be financially disastrous; therefore, it makes economic sense to protect workers and the public within reasonable costs considerations.

When a chemical accident happens, pool companies can face heavy fines from the province along with civil lawsuits from everyone who was affected. Pool companies should have written safety protocols and procedures for dealing with chlorine and other pool chemicals. If an accident occurs, the pool company and/or facility operator may need to show a judge every reasonable step expected and in place by the aquatics industry was taken to protect against harm from the use of chlorine and/or other chemicals.

Chlorine’s effect as a gas can range from mild to severe, depending on exposure levels. It can cause mild breathing problems and skin rashes to severe chemical burns, pulmonary edema, and death. When an injury occurs to an employee, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) becomes involved and members of the public can sue for the harm done to them physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Owners, managers, supervisors, and workers all have a duty to be safe and take all reasonable precautions to protect themselves and others who could be exposed.


Employers must take reasonable steps to protect workers

The Occupational Health and Safety Act states an employer must take every precaution, reasonable in the circumstances, to protect an employee. This means taking all the necessary steps to prevent a foreseeable accident.

A foreseeable accident is one that a reasonable person would consider to be possible in all of the circumstances. The operator/company is obliged to proactively protect all of those who could be exposed to chlorine gas. Whenever chemicals are involved, foreseeable accidents can include some of the absolute worst outcomes, including explosions, gas leaks, emergency evacuations, chemical burns, and death.

Protecting against liability claims begins as soon as workers come into contact with or are using chlorine; whether it is transporting canisters of chlorine gas into the pool’s storage area, inputting chlorine into the pool system, or disposing of used containers and solution. It is very important every worker handling chlorine is properly trained in the correct procedures. A waiver is never satisfactory as it has to be properly worded and has to be brought to the attention and understanding of the person signing, which rarely ever really happens.

What is a ‘worker’?

The definition of ‘worker’ includes everyone contracted by the pool company to perform work, whether they receive a regular paycheque or take home cash at the end of the day. The law defines a ‘worker’ very broadly. Pool companies must also be careful to protect high school students working during the summer or in co-op programs.

Pool chlorination systems often require routine maintenance and inspection by pool company workers; however, third-party workers may operate and maintain the system in-between the work performed by pool company employees. Pool companies need to ensure third parties using the system are being responsible, and the pool system is functioning properly for their use.

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