The death two weeks ago of a Wolverine mine worker could have been prevented, according to the Yukon Worker’s Compensation Health and Safety Board.
An investigation found insufficient stabilizing equipment caused the collapse of a mine tunnel that killed 25-year-old mechanic William Fisher.
Early in the morning on April 25, Fisher was working on a rock-bolting machine when the ceiling collapsed, pinning him against the machine and burying him.
The screen mesh used to reinforce and prevent the soft, crumbly rock from collapsing was designed for a tunnel with a width and height of 4.5 metres.
But the tunnel Fisher was working in was more than twice that size, said occupational health and safety director Kurt Dieckmann. The stabilizing equipment couldn’t take the additional load and the screen mesh peeled away, allowing rock on the left side of the tunnel to cave in.
Two other workers were in the tunnel at the time. One was inside the cab of the rock-bolting machine and was protected from the weight of the falling rock. Another worker was injured, but survived. They were working further into the tunnel.
The men had widened the tunnel to 10 metres in search of ore they had “lost” while mining, said Dieckmann.
They installed support systems in the widened portion of the tunnel, but the designs weren’t cleared by engineers.
It’s not clear whether the workers knew enlarging the tunnel was dangerous, he said. That will be determined in a further investigation of the fatality.
What’s important in preventing future fatalities is ensuring tunnel-stabilizing systems be continually monitored, said Dieckmann.
“Ground-support design must be modified on an ongoing basis to reflect actual rock behaviour … rather than relying on generic plans,” he said.
Those changes must also be signed off by an engineer, he added.
Since Fisher’s death, all underground work at Wolverine mine has ceased. Work will continue once the board determines it is safe to proceed.
The rock in the tunnel, called rhyolite tuff, is still safe to work in even though it’s been described as “very weak” with “extremely closely spaced … foliations,” said Dieckmann.
“I firmly believe to mine down there is safe, it just depends on how it’s done,” he said.
Procon Tunnelling and Mining, which employed Fisher, could face charges and penalties as a result of the fatality. The maximum fine the company could face is $150,000 for each count of negligence.
Dieckmann wouldn’t say whether the company could be found criminally responsible for the death or not. They’re still waiting on expert reports to determine where responsibility lies, he said.
Last week, Yukon Federation of Labour president Alex Furlong said criminal charges should be considered against employers who are implicated in a workplace death.
The investigation into Fisher’s death coincides with the board’s announcement it is introducing harsher penalties for employers and employees who violate occupational health and safety regulations.
Beginning June 1st, employers will be fined $250 if they don’t comply with written orders from the health and safety board.
Penalties for employers will double to $1,000 from $500 for low- and medium-risk workplace hazards. For severe hazards, the penalties will rise to $2,500 from $1,000.
The increases are aimed at preventing workplace accidents, not increasing revenue for the board, said its president Craig Tuton.
Last year was one of the deadliest years for workers in the Yukon. Four workers, including one at the Wolverine mine, died as a result of workplace accidents.
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