Ex-employee sued Eastway Tank over explosion years before blast killed 6

A former employee provided this photo of the interior of Eastway Tank Pump and Meter to CBC.  (submitted - image credit)
A former employee provided this photo of the interior of Eastway Tank Pump and Meter to CBC. (submitted - image credit)

Years before an industrial explosion killed six workers at Eastway Tank Pump and Meter, a former employee had accused the Ottawa company of pressuring him to return to work before he had the chance to recover from injuries sustained from a fuel tank blast, CBC News has learned.

According to a 2010 civil case alleging personal injury, loss of income and wrongful dismissal, Sergey Yelgin once demanded more than $1 million in damages from his former employer following an oil tank blowup in 2008 that he claimed left him with double vision, headaches and other trauma.

In his statement of claim, Yelgin alleged that "under the pressure of the company," he went back to work after recuperating at home for about three weeks, "despite the fact that he was not in a physical condition" to do so.

None of the allegations were proven in court, as Eastway and Yelgin mutually agreed to have the case dismissed nine months after he launched his suit.

Miryam Gorelashvili, the lawyer who represented Yelgin pro-bono because she said "he was broke and injured," told CBC the case was dismissed due to a provision in Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.

The law restricts workers from suing certain employers for workplace injuries that should be covered by the province's own compensation board (WSIB). Under Ontario legislation, manufacturers such as Eastway are required to subscribe to WSIB coverage.

Yelgin declined to be interviewed about his failed civil suit. He did alert CBC News to the 2008 explosion during the aftermath of one of Ottawa's deadliest industrial incidents earlier this year.

Five employees — Rick Bastien, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Kayla Ferguson and Russell McLellan — were killed at the tanker manufacturer's site on Merivale Road after a blast and fire on Jan. 13. A sixth employee, Matt Kearney, succumbed to his injuries in hospital the next day.

Submitted photos
Submitted photos

Several agencies led by Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal continue to investigate the 2022 explosion. The province's Ministry of Labour faces a general deadline of one year to file any safety-related charges.

Eastway has not responded to CBC's repeated requests for comment.

Walter Langley, the lawyer who represented the company in the 2010 civil case, said he can't recall the matter.

History of workplace safety concerns

Details from Yelgin's case add to a growing list of alleged safety lapses raised by former employees of Eastway in the years before the January explosion.

CBC spoke with three former employees earlier this year about their concerns, which ranged from improper storage of flammable chemicals to welding near "hot trucks" — tankers that still contained fuel or flammable residue.

In his statement of claim, Yelgin said he was exiting a fuel tanker in which he'd been welding in August 2008 when he was thrown by an explosion and struck in the face by debris.

The claim alleged the fuel tanker was not steamed and tested "adequately or at all."

"Yelgin inquired about the oil tank and his manager told him that the tank [had] been steamed and tested and was accordingly safe to be worked on," according to the statement of claim.

Yelgin said he used a "sniffer" device to check for signs of flammable residue in the tanker and received a "not explosive" reading. But he alleged that equipment was not kept in good working condition.

The explosion dislodged dividers within the tanker, threw Yelgin, and created debris that broke his welding helmet, leaving him with side effects he said remained more than a year after the incident, according to the plaintiff's claim. The claim listed the side effects as partial vision loss, nausea, difficulty breathing and making food smell like burned plastic.

'Don't call the ambulance'

Ottawa Fire Services call records obtained by CBC show firefighters responded to a call to Eastway on Aug. 5, 2008, after a compressed air tank exploded when a welder was working inside a fuel tanker.

Another Eastway employee working nearby at the time recalled hearing a loud explosion. He said Yelgin appeared to be unconscious when other workers first pulled him out of the tanker.

CBC News has agreed not to name the employee because he fears reprisal for speaking out.

The employee said he recalled someone saying, "Don't call the ambulance," and later, once Yelgin had woken up, someone offered to drive Yelgin home.

He alleged the company "did not want to make a big report."

An ambulance did arrive and took Yelgin to a hospital with non-life-threatening facial injuries, but it's unclear who made the call to paramedics, as the specific data on the caller is no longer available, according to the Ottawa Paramedic Service.

The Ministry of Labour said it was notified of the 2008 explosion but would not confirm whether it was Eastway that reported the incident, citing the ongoing investigation into this year's explosion.

David McEvoy/Bytown Fire Brigade
David McEvoy/Bytown Fire Brigade

Yelgin alleged Eastway pressured him to return to work soon after.

"His supervisor called him at home every day asking him to return to work," the plaintiff's claim stated. "The company even offered to provide Mr. Yelgin with transportation to and from work."

According to the co-worker, when Yelgin came back to work after the explosion, he complained about impaired vision.

By December 2008, Yelgin alleged the company "improperly terminated his employment without lawful cause in an egregious and high-handed manner."

'Revolving door' of workers

The witness to the 2008 explosion, who worked at Eastway for years, said workers performed potentially dangerous tasks without adequate safety training from the company.

He said he was asked a few times to work on hot trucks.

"I didn't want to do it. And they said, 'No, no, you gotta do it.' They were putting pressure on you," he said.

If employees declined to do work they felt was unsafe, they were eventually let go, he said, contributing to a "revolving door" at Eastway.

Expediency trumped safety, the employee added.

"Sometimes [a] company or the owner of a truck [would say], 'I need this right away.' So [Eastway] didn't want to spend the money to steam," he said.

Radio Canada
Radio Canada

In an earlier statement to CBC News, Eastway president and owner Neil Greene called previous allegations of unsafe working conditions "unfounded."

"Eastway Tank has always worked to maintain the highest safety standards. We are working closely with investigators and are co-operating fully to get to the bottom of what happened," Greene said in January.

The Ministry of Labour has previously said it found issues at Eastway related to ventilation, welding safety and training, and exposures to hazardous chemical substances in June 2017 — issues the ministry said were promptly addressed.

More recently, the ministry found an unspecified safety issue at Eastway after the explosion that it declined to specify, again citing the ongoing investigation.

'Sad case'

Gorelashvili said she lost contact with Yelgin after the 2010 civil lawsuit was dismissed.

"He seemed lost," she said. "It's a sad case for him as I could not help."

But she said his experience partly inspired her to specialize in personal injury law.

It's unclear if Yelgin received WSIB benefits. He did not respond to CBC's numerous attempts to contact him after a few short initial email exchanges pointing to the 2008 incident.

WSIB's own records show Eastway registered a claim four days after the explosion, but Gorelashvili could not recall whether Yelgin received any payout or services as a result.

Regardless, companies required to participate in the compensation board program are relieved of individual responsibility for incident costs, which was why Yelgin's civil suit was dismissed.