An Ontario court has fined Brewers Retail Inc. $175,000 after a worker it contracted to wash beer delivery trucks died from drinking bright blue windshield wiper fluid stored in a large plastic vodka bottle.
On April 8, 2012, two men working for Keswick-based Brake Mobile Wash at The Beer Store Distribution Centre in Brampton, Ontario were washing the exteriors of trucks and trailers used to deliver beer products. The two men entered one of the truck’s cabs, discovered a vodka-labelled bottle, and drank the UltraClear brand washer fluid, comprised of some 50% methanol.
One of the workers — south Central Ontario resident John Whitcombe — took home the remainder of the 1.5-litre plastic vodka bottle filled with wiper fluid, and finished it off. Whitcombe later died from methanol poisoning, but his co-worker survived after a brief hospitalization.
Brewers Retail Inc. pled guilty to clause 25(2)(d) of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to “acquaint a worker or a person in authority over a worker with any hazard in the work and in the handling, storage, use, disposal and transport of any article, device, equipment or a biological, chemical or physical agent.”
The court issued the fine against Brewers Retail Inc. on February 12, 2013.
“We accept the findings of the court in this matter and we will continue to more than double and triple our efforts to ensure that we have the highest possible health and safety standards in place,” The Beer Store President Ted Moroz told the court, after extending his condolences to Whitcombe’s family.
During the trial, Justice of the Peace Lisa Ritchie was told that it had become common practice for The Beer Store’s truck drivers to store wiper fluid in liquor bottles within their cabs. While the practice is now discouraged, truckers previously used the liquor bottles as a way to capture wiper fluid from a vat that stores the cleaning agent.
The court heard that the workers were only tasked with cleaning the trucks’ exteriors, and did not have permission or reason to enter the interior cab area.
The court acknowledged that the Brake Mobile Wash workers played a significant role in compromising their own safety. However, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) requires proper labelling for hazardous chemicals. In a statement of facts from the trial, the Ministry of Labour acknowledged that the workers had stolen the bottle from the cab, but the judgment declared that their “unauthorized possession” of the wiper fluid did not negate the “negligent actions” of Brewers Retail Inc.
The methanol in windshield wiper fluid is sometimes referred to as wood alcohol because it used to be produced from the destructive distillation of wood. Ingested in large quantities, methanol is metabolized to formic acid or formate salts, which poison the central nervous system, and may cause blindness, coma, or death. According to the UK-based National Poisons Information Service, as little as 10 millilitres of pure methanol can cause blindness. Upwards of 30 millilitres can prove fatal. Methanol also shares a very similar odour to the ethanol used in alcoholic beverages. Despite its toxicity, methanol is used in wiper fluid for its ability to melt ice and remove dead bugs.
It is unknown whether the Brake Mobile Wash workers knew that they were ingesting windshield wiper fluid. Some flavoured vodka drinks (notably the blue glow of artificial raspberry and blueberry) are available in an array of colours other than the standard clear colour. Many vodka companies even utilize vibrant blues in their marketing and graphic design for their liquor containers, some of them building on the neon-type glow that resembles the look of wiper fluid. This is potentially due to the effect produced when these bottles are backlit or toplit on liquor store shelves or among other liquor bottles on display behind bartenders.
Intentional abuse of wiper fluid is a lot less common than abuse of antifreeze for its incapacitating effects. Because antifreeze has a sweet taste, it typically poses great danger to pets and children if left accessible.
Brewers Retail Inc. says it is working with the Ontario Ministry of Labour to improve its safety standards. The company has since hired a third-party auditor to examine all six of its distribution centres and “ensure there are no other opportunities for this type of error,” Moroz told the court.
In addition to the fine, the court imposed a 25% victim surcharge, as required by the Provincial Offences Act. The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.