Workers need a buddy system, says injured miner

Earl Watson was blasted in the face with hot, chemical-ridden water while working as a gold miner. The scalding brew burned his right eye and left him legally blind.

Earl Watson was blasted in the face with hot, chemical-ridden water while working as a gold miner.

The scalding brew burned his right eye and left him legally blind. He only sees through a thin slit in that eye and his depth perception is shot.

He was working alone when the accident happened. It was on a gold claim outside of Dawson City. Had he been blinded in both eyes, he could have been suffering helpless for several days in the woods.

Now he wants an end to people working alone in dangerous jobs. Miners should imitate the oil fields down south, where workers are always paired, he said.

“It costs the oil companies money, but it saves lives,” he says.

When you first meet Watson, you can’t tell he’s half-blind. But a few seconds after sitting down for a coffee, he turns his face away from the ceiling, his right eye shiny and glistening.

“It’s the damn artificial light,” he says, dabbing his eye with a cloth. “I might have to put on my glasses.”

He can take the pain for a few minutes, but soon it becomes too much. He slides on a pair of dark sporty shades and does the rest of the interview with his eyes covered.

Watson, 56, was a lifelong mechanic and welder before the accident. He was raised in Fort St. John, where his dad taught him how to repair and build machinery.

For the next 30 years, Watson would work on logging trucks, tractors and drills, mostly picking up jobs at oil-rig sites and mining claims.

He’s not tall, a little over five feet. But he has the look of a hardened workhorse. Someone who just doesn’t know how to complain.

Watson uses a bowl for creamers to describe the water pump that blew up in his face. He holds the bowl in his hands and shows how to dismantle the pump when it clogs. His fingernails are bashed up and electrical tape is wrapped around one of his fingers.

In May, he was hired to repair and maintain a giant pump that was sucking contaminated water from a mining pit. The claim was owned by a company called Northern Shoveler.

Situated in the woods around Dawson City, the site was far from any neighbors and was a 30-kilometre drive from town.

He hadn’t been working on the claim for long. It was only his ninth day on the job when he was severely hurt.

He was working alone on heavy machinery during hot, blistery days with only random visits from his employer and another mine operator.

It was a bad time for things to go wrong.

The water in the pit was seeping in from a nearby tailings pond.

“You don’t drink it, it’s full of mercury, arsenic and other stuff,” he said.

The pump broke three or four times over the course of a week, forcing Watson to jump into the muddy pit and turn it off.

He then had to lift the pump with a Caterpillar and slowly begin dismantling it.

That requires relieving pressure from inside the pump. Even while it’s off, the water pressure pushing downward from the 140-metre-long pipe attached to the pump is enormous.

So Watson had to use a small nozzle to peter off pressure.

It took a few hours of letting the nozzle violently spew out muddy water before he could take off the pump’s filter and remove the clogging.

“I don’t know what the pressure is, but it’s huge,” he said.

Watson was going through the routine on a hot afternoon on May 25, when the nozzle itself began to become heavily clogged with caked mud. He began slowly removing the mud with a wrench – the open side of the nozzle spraying away from him.

But the nozzle broke and opened on the other end.

“The cap just broke in front of my face – instantly,” said Watson.

The blast was so intense his hard hat blew off his head. It was never found. His goggles were found two weeks later, laying on an embankment 10 metres from the pit.

Watson knew he could be hurt. But there was no severe pain. He couldn’t see out of his right eye. After getting out of the pit and cleaning his face, he drove to see his boss, Gary Crawford, to say the pump was busted for the day.

He went to bed at around 10 p.m. He still couldn’t see out of his eye.

By midnight, he couldn’t sleep. His eye was pulsing with pain. He said it was 10 times worse than “welder’s flash,” a sharp pain you get from not wearing a mask when you spark a welding torch. The skin on his nose was beginning to blister and sting.

The pain continued to mount as he got into his car around 5 a.m. The only relief was to bend over and put his head between his knees for 20 seconds. Every 30 metres, or so, during the short drive he stopped the car and bent over.

“I must have done it 40 times,” he said.

There was a phone number at the nursing station in town. The nurse on the other end of the phone wanted to wait until morning.

He couldn’t, he said. He needed something for the pain.

A doctor examined him, but wasn’t able to operate the phoroptor, the machines optometrists use for eye exams.

He was given some stronger Tylenol and went to sleep. He was medevaced to Whitehorse at three p.m. that day.

After being examined by an optometrist in Whitehorse, Watson was medevaced to Vancouver for surgery on his eye.

Doctors did everything to remove the pressure within his right eyeball. It was damaging the inside of his eye and had already caused a schism on an optic nerve.

The doctors also removed a cataract that predated the accident.

The corneal abrasion went away, but the damage to his right eye was permanent. His sight was wonky and narrow. And it has stayed that way since.

“This has broken me up,” he said. He hasn’t welded or done mechanical work since. He’s only done some driving and other odd jobs on construction sites.

He bumps into walls and misses steps. He just can’t live the life he used to.

Watson doesn’t think a lone placer miner should be forced to have a buddy system. But people hired by mining firms should have two people onsite at all times, he said.

It’s just common practice in the oil business in the provinces.

“If I’d been blinded, I don’t know when I would have been found,” he said.

Workers’ legislation in the Yukon states no one can work alone in a confined space, like a sewer or an attic.

But for other jobs, it’s up to the employer to decide if the situation is too hazardous for one person, said Kurt Dieckmann, director of occupational health and safety and the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board.

If the board catches an employer leaving a person alone at a dangerous site, they will be fined, said Dieckmann.

From Watson’s experience, it doesn’t look like the mining industry takes that very seriously.

And while there are no plans to issue blanket rules on working alone in a particular industry, there are discussions about tightening the rules around leaving it to an employer’s discretion, said Dieckmann.

At the next meeting of the compensation board, which consists of labour and business groups, there will be talk about forcing employers to write up reports on their decision to leave a worker alone, he said.

But there’s another reason why Watson should have had a buddy that day. The safety board doesn’t believe his story.

They rejected his request for workplace injury compensation.

The eye exam at the Dawson Nursing Station didn’t mention a corneal abrasion or any trauma to the right eye, the board said in its decision to reject Watson’s claim. The nurse also didn’t make a workplace injury report at the station.

Also, his pre-existing cataract could have caused the damage, the board said.

That’s despite the diagnosis from three others optometrists who saw Watson over the next few months.

“They think I did this to myself,” said Watson.

He’s appealed the board’s decision and could have a chance at being compensated.

In the meantime, he doesn’t

want anyone to be in an emergency as dire as his own without a friend.

“I’m not saying it should just be miners, but anybody,” he said.

Contact James Munson at