Former mine worker alleges safety violations

A former worker at Yukon Zinc's Wolverine mine says he was fired after refusing to lie about a safety incident. On Aug. 12, 2012, Dana Larocque drove a scoop tram mining vehicle into a sump.

A former worker at Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine mine says he was fired after refusing to lie about a safety incident.

On Aug. 12, 2012, Dana Larocque drove a scoop tram mining vehicle into a sump, or a pond of water, underground at the mine. At the time he was an employee of Procon Mining & Tunnelling, which is contracted by Yukon Zinc.

He said that he was sent to that part of the mine by his shift supervisor, or “shifter,” to pick up the shifter’s brother.

No one should have been working in that area at the time because there was too much water in the tunnels, and the shifter could not get in with his vehicle to check on him, said Larocque.

Furthermore he was specifically instructed to give the other employee a ride out on the scoop of his vehicle, a clear safety violation, said Larocque.

Yukon Zinc confirmed that a scoop tram was driven into a sump on that day, but disputes the circumstances of the incident as described by Larocque.

The incident was not immediately reported to the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, but when it was later brought to the board’s attention by Larocque, it investigated and issued Yukon Zinc a $3,700 fine for failure to report a serious incident.

Larocque remembers talking about the unsafe conditions with the brother when he went to go check on him, he said.

“I said, ‘Holy shit, that’s a lot of water in there man.’”

“And I remember this clearly, he’s like, ‘I don’t know why my brother would have somebody working back in an area like this where nobody can check on them.’”

Larocque returned at the end of the shift, as he was instructed to do, to give the worker a ride out on his scoop, he said.

He couldn’t see in front of him because of the muddy water splashing up, so he was navigating by following the walls.

He didn’t see the sump until he was in it.

“The water started coming in, and I couldn’t open my door,” said Larocque. “The water came right up to my neck and it was still going. And I was panicking in there, because I was thinking of my kids, and everything like that. I thought I was going to drown in there, and I probably could have if that door didn’t open.”

The other worker, who had been on the scoop, jumped off when they hit the sump and went running for his gear bag instead of coming to his aid, Larocque said.

He was mad, but the brother did not seem concerned.

“He’s pretty much laughing there and he’s like, ‘Oh man, this scoop is fucked. You’re probably going to get fired.’”

He was in shock, cold and shaking with boots full of water as the pair walked out to find a phone to call the shifter, said Larocque.

He then met with the shifter, the safety officer and the site supervisor, and none of them offered him access to medical attention or even a shower and some dry clothes, said Larocque.

Instead, they swore and yelled at him for destroying the scoop tram.

He wasn’t offered a ride back to camp, and had to walk, he said.

The shifter and his brother soon came around his room and told him not to say that the brother had been riding on the scoop, said Larocque.

“You know, Dana, just write it this way,” he remembers his boss telling him. “This is how I wrote it in the book. Write it down this way and you won’t get fired or anything like that.”

Next he called his fiancee, and that’s when he really broke down, he said.

He went to see the medic, about two hours after the incident, and she gave him some Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication, to calm down, he said.

The next morning, at around 9 a.m. the supervisor came to his room and told him he had half an hour to get his things together and board a plane out of camp.

Laroque thinks he was fired for the damage caused to the scoop, but has never received an answer from Procon, he said.

The incident has caused suffering to him, his fiancee, his children and stepchildren, he said.

He has been receiving employment insurance benefits based on work he did previously for another company, but has not been able to find work since the incident.

Larocque has been looking for a lawyer, but so far they have all refused to take the case, he said.

“If somebody else at that mine dies because of the same thing that happened to me, and if I lied about it, then that thing’s on my back. That’s on me.”

Yukon Zinc has been talking seriously about safety since two mine workers died between 2009 and 2010.

Floyd Varley, mining manager, was hired on after the fatalities as part of a managerial change to improve the safety record.

And the mine has been doing very well, he said.

“I believe we’ve turned around the mine pretty dramatically. It’s a different place than it was when I walked through the gate.”

The frequency of injuries at the mine is lower than the average Yukon workplace, and lower than the average underground metal mine worldwide, he said.

Procon recently went 500 days without a lost-time injury, said Varley.

The biggest change has been in the process for investigating and following up with incidents, he said.

“All incidents large and small are investigated. And accidents, including near-misses where nothing happened, but close-calls, we create an action plan to fix things and follow through and make improvements.”

The incident on Aug. 17 was a case of employee error, he said.

“We believe there was some level of inattention and not have being operating the equipment prudently for the conditions.”

The incident was not reported to WCB because it involved damage to equipment, not injury to a worker, he said. The operator of the equipment was upset but not hurt.

“He was wet from driving it into the pond,” said Varley. “There was no medical treatment other than trying to calm him down because he was upset.”

But WCB disagreed that the incident did not need to be reported, and now the mine has changed its criteria for reporting, he said.

“We didn’t think that equipment damage was something they were interested in. We were corrected on that assumption and we paid our fine and we’ve changed our ways.”

The board issued a fine for failing to report the incident, but found no reason through their investigation to investigate other safety concerns, said Richard Mostyn, spokesperson for the workers’ compensation board.

And Yukon Zinc’s internal investigation found that Larocque’s claims were not supported by the evidence, said Varley.

“The accounts about going to pick someone up and too deep to drive through we felt were not substantiated. And that is in the investigation report, which included surveys of the elevation of the travel way versus the depth of the water, things like that that we believe pretty clearly show the facts of the case.”

The major safety concern was with the operation of the vehicle, said Varley.

“The individual, if he could not see that he was driving into the sump, he would not have seen a person in that tunnel. That was disturbing to us. That was our concern with his performance.”

Yukon Zinc could not say why his job ended, because he was employed by Procon.

Procon did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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