OHS Canada Magazine

Feds investigating gas leak at customs-related facility

June 19, 2012

Occupational Hygiene Chemical, Biological Agents - Exposure/Exposure Limits Indoor Air Quality

HAMILTON, Ont (Canadian OH&S News)

HAMILTON, Ont (Canadian OH&S News)

A gas leak involving a little-known asphyxiant at an Ontario customs facility has spurred an investigation from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC).

Early in the morning on June 12, workers at Intermediate Terminals in Hamilton, Ontario came in to work and discovered a flame at the neck of one cylinder of phosphine gas, says Dave Christopher, fire safety officer with Hamilton Emergency Services. When firefighters arrived, however, the flame had apparently self-extinguished.

“It came in as a hazmat call, so we took readings,” Christopher says, adding that the cap protecting the tank was damaged and the material is susceptible to spontaneous combustions. “There were no elevated levels; they couldn’t get any readings. When they talked to the manufacturer, we realized what we had.”

Flammable gas may be fatal if inhaled


Phosphine gas is a colourless gas with a characteristic fish or garlic-like odour that is shipped as a liquefied compressed gas, notes information from Airgas Inc, the largest distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases and related equipment to industrial and commercial markets in the United States. The flammable gas may be fatal if inhaled and may cause damage to the lungs, heart, upper respiratory tract and central nervous system, the information says.

“It’s an asphyxiant. It can cause burns if inhaled. It can also cause frostbite — because it’s cold, it can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled,” Christopher says, adding that it is believed there was some residual gas within the tank. “It’s nasty, nasty materials.”

Christopher reports that four firefighters and two workers at the facility where taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. The workers and firefighters, who responded in bunker gear due to the unknown nature of the hazard, were decontaminated before being sent to hospital, he adds.

The facility is unique in that materials from a loading dock arrive from an American shipper, are cleared by customs, and then a Canadian shipper picks it up and ships it throughout the country, Christopher explains.

“[They] unload at one side of the loading dock and offload the other side into a truck and it’s delivered where it needs to go. It’s not a warehouse where this would be stored for days on end,” he says.

The cylinders are owned by Niagara Falls, Ontario-based Cytec Canada Inc, which operates the only phosphine and phosphine derivatives plant in North America, says information from the company’s website. The products are used in mining and solvent extraction applications, such as durable textile flame retardants and intermediates for catalysts, phosphonium salts and UV photo initiators.

Besides the HRSDC investigation, the provincial Ministry of Transportation is also investigating, Christopher says, noting that the cylinders have a special wrapping and their transportation must be logged so it’s known where the product is at any given time. “Everybody is really looking at this careful,” he says.

An HRSDC spokeswoman confirms that the federal government’s Labour Program is conducting an investigation into the incident in accordance with the requirements of Part II of the Canada Labour Code. Details of the investigation, however, cannot be shared under Section 144(5) of the code, which restricts the publication of information.


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