Workplace deaths mourned

A memorial to mourn the four 2011 Yukon workplace deaths was held in Whitehorse on the weekend. The national day of mourning was created by Parliament in 1991 to commemorate workers killed or injured on the job.

A memorial to mourn the four 2011 Yukon workplace deaths was held in Whitehorse on the weekend.

The national day of mourning was created by Parliament in 1991 to commemorate workers killed or injured on the job.

“Given the size of our workforce, four is a staggering number,” said Mark Hill, director of corporate services for the Yukon Workers’ Compensation, Health and Safety Board, at a news conference late last week.

“In fact, only once in the past 20 years has there been a year in which work in the Yukon did not cost at least one person his or her life, and we have to look back 14 years to find that –  14 long years.

“Every year before and since, somebody’s mother, father, son or daughter didn’t come home, would never come home, because something went wrong at work – something that could have been prevented, but was not.”

Hill said the day of mourning provides an opportunity to reflect.

“We must ask ourselves: what have we learned?,” he said. “What are we doing differently? And if we aren’t doing anything differently, did we learn anything at all?”

Unfortunately, even Hill is at a loss to say what has been learned from the four workplace deaths of 2011.

In March 2011, B.C. pilot Bradley Chambers, 34, died when the DHC-3 Otter he was flying crashed in the Mayo region. Little is known about the cause of the crash. Federal authorities are investigating, but have released few details.

NDP MLA Steve Cardiff, 53, was killed in a two-vehicle crash on the South Klondike Highway while doing constituency work last July. The NDP politician had married just two months before the accident.

The cause of the crash that killed Cardiff remains “inconclusive,” said Kurt Dieckmann, the board’s director of occupational safety.

“When you’re operating a machine at high speed, there are inherent risks, and you have to choose consciously for that to happen. We can’t draw specifics beyond that.”

In August, 49-year-old Kurt Gantner, the Tagish Lake fire chief, died from a heart attack while driving to a house fire.

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On top of his work as a fire chief, Gantner ran the motel, restaurant and store in Tagish, served as postmaster and sat on the local advisory council.

Firefighters face elevated risks of heart attack, said Dieckmann. Heavy gear, hot temperatures and strenuous physical activity all mean that fitness is especially important, he said.

In November, Denis Chabot, 34, died while repairing a tractor trailer at Integra Tire in Whitehorse. He was an avid outdoorsman who moved to the Yukon from Sherbrooke, Quebec, a decade ago.

An early report by the board found Chabot’s death to be preventable. He was underneath a transport trailer when a driver moved the vehicle and crushed him. A final report on his death is expected within the next two months.

Workplace injury rates have declined over the past few years, largely thanks to “huge gains” in case management, allowing injured workers to return to the job sooner, said Hill.

But workplace injuries are up 23 per cent for 2012, compared to this time last year. The number of workers remains stable.

“At this rate, there’s no question that unsafe Yukon workplaces will take more lives this year,” said Hill. “The only question is when and who and how many.”

Safety improvements made by the territory’s construction industry provide an example for other industries to follow, said Dieckmann.

“When people are working at heights, they’re tied off. Three or four years ago, we weren’t seeing that. All workplaces have fencing up. We used to have to tell them to put up fencing.

“If we could get that kind of response across all industries, in government, that will be huge. That will make the difference.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com