Former manager alleges mine was unsafe

The former production superintendent of Yukon Zinc's Wolverine mine supports the allegations of a worker who says he was fired after refusing to lie about safety violations.

The former production superintendent of Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine mine supports the allegations of a worker who says he was fired after refusing to lie about safety violations.

Paul Nesbitt said that failure of supervision and management were at the heart of a serious incident that occurred on August 12, 2012, and the employee shared little of the blame.

The incident involved Dana Larocque, who drove a scoop-tram mining vehicle into a sump pit filled with water while travelling through a flooded area.

The incident was not reported to the Yukon Worker’s Compensation Health and Safety Board, until it was later brought to their attention by Larocque.

At that point the WCB ordered Yukon Zinc to reinvestigate, and Nesbitt led the investigation.

Yukon Zinc was issued a $3,700 fine for failing to report the incident.

Nesbitt said he reviewed all the relevant facts and statements in writing his report.

The report was submitted by the mine’s medic and acting safety officer, who dealt with Larocque immediately following the incident.

“Her word backs the kid’s up pretty much word for word,” said Nesbitt.

The report could not substantiate Larocque’s allegations that he had been instructed to travel through the flooded area in order to retrieve a worker and allow him to ride in the bucket of his scoop.

“That’s up for debate too, whether the guy was in the bucket,” said Nesbitt. “We have no facts. We have his word versus the other guy’s word, so we couldn’t use it. But I know damn well he was in the bucket.”

Either way, the vehicle ended up in a deep sump pit because muddy water was blocking Larocque’s view and he made a wrong turn.

“He could have drowned, where he ended up.”

And the incident was handled “extremely poorly” by management, said Nesbitt.

“He was treated absolutely horribly when he got to the surface. He was yelled at, and berated for losing the scoop in the sump and they made him walk all the way back to camp which is about two kilometres. Wet.”

Larocque had the right and the obligation to refuse work he thought was unsafe, said Nesbitt. But that was the only thing he faulted him for.

The final report also faulted Larocque for not identifying the risks, and “poor judgement of the employee losing control or his equipment.”

But this language was added by the mine’s manager, said Nesbitt.

“He would just not give up that the employee had some part to play in this, and I agreed with him only to a certain point. I said, ‘He had the right to refuse unsafe work, but other than that, he was directed to go do that work through the floods, so we own it.’

“It was a standard common practice to do that at that mine, so why are we blaming the kid? The expectations were either do your work or lose your job.”

As part of the corrective actions after the incident, Nesbitt developed a policy for travelling through flooded areas.

“It was quite simple. It said, if you encounter water over your boots, you don’t go in there.”

Travelling through flooded areas is unsafe not because of only the risk of drowning, but also because of possible equipment damage and unseen tripping hazards, said Nesbitt.

But when Floyd Varley, the current mining manager, was hired back to the company in October, he got rid of Nesbitt’s policy.

“He and I had words,” said Nesbitt. “I said, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t do that. This will provide a safe workplace.’ He says, ‘We need to get in there.’”

A representative of Yukon Zinc responded in an email to the allegation that Varley threw out the policy.

“Paul Nesbitt developed a draft mine dewatering policy and since that version was created Yukon Zinc has officially implemented an expanded version by adding specific instruction for proper pump handling with related pictures and included the specific depth of water that allows for safe travel.”

The company has also improved signage around the sumps to avoid accidents and improved their policies for reporting incidents in response to the report, according to a separate email.

“Mr. Nesbitt’s findings did not take into account the facts that were accepted by WCB, which included a safe depth of the water for the sumps and that there was safe access to the mine. WCB said that the incident should have been reported, but found no other reason through their investigation to investigate other safety concerns.”

Kurt Dieckmann, the WCB’s director of occupational health and safety, said the failure to report was a very serious issue, and encompasses the failure of management not only to report but to investigate and take action to avoid similar incidents.

The board accepted the report prepared by Nesbitt, said Dieckmann.

“We agree with what the root causes were and what the corrective actions were.”

The board continues to follow up with the mine on corrective actions.

Nesbitt worked for Yukon Zinc between September and January. The failure of management to act on safety concerns was part of the reason he left, he said.

“The focus there is completely on getting the ore out. It’s not on the safety of the people.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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