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Yukon outfitter fined for violations after death of employee

Trophy Stone Outfitting pleaded guilty under the OHSA after the 2019 death of an employee
Trophy Stone Outfitting Limited and one of its supervisors have been fined $46,000 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act after the death of an employee in Jan. 2019. (Yukon News file)

A Yukon outfitting company and one of its supervisors have been fined $46,000 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) after the death of an employee.

Jason Keith, 36, drowned in Drury Lake in January 2019, while on a work trip for Trophy Stone Outfitting Limited (TSO).

The outfitter was fined $20,000 with a $3,000 surcharge. William Sandulak, who was overseeing the trip, was individually fined the same amount as Keith’s supervisor.

The outfitter and Sandulak pleaded guilty to failing to comply with OHSA safety procedures, and both were fined in territorial court on Jan. 5.

According to the court’s agreed statement of facts, Sandulak and Keith were traveling by snowmobiles when they rode into open water on Drury Lake the night of Jan. 28.

Keith, an Alberta resident, had arrived in the Yukon about 10 days previous to assist the outfitter with winter work. He had been previously employed by the outfitter in 2018, but left in the off-season to care for his grandmother in Morinville, Alta.

Keith had “since become good friends” with Sandulak and was staying with Sandulak’s family upon his return.

On the night of Jan. 28, Keith and Sandulak embarked on an overnight trip to Drury Lake with Brad Friesen, another employee. They planned to check on two camps belonging to the outfitter, in preparation for the upcoming season.

Their initial plan was to stay overnight at the lower camp, but upon arrival found there was no bedding there. They subsequently decided to continue travelling to the upper camp.

Both Sandulak and Keith were driving outfitter-owned snowmobiles attached to skimmers loaded with overnight gear. Friesen was driving his own snowmobile, also with a skimmer.

The statement of facts says that temperatures were unusually mild in the area. The trio wasn’t aware of anyone who had travelled to the lake by snowmobile that winter.

It’s noted that all three had frequently traversed the area, but Keith was less experienced with a snowmobile than the other two.

They were not wearing life jackets, nor were they equipped with ice picks, floating ropes or buoyancy devices on the snowmobiles.

“TSO had no safety protocols in place dealing with night travel, winter water or ice conditions, the use of personal protective or other safety equipment, snow machine operation or pre-trip planning,” the document states.

The trio were travelling between the two outfitting camps when they reached the “narrows,” a section of Drury Lake described as “dangerous and unpredictable.”

The area is traditionally open water, but closer to shore than normal due to the warm weather and lacking the overflow that would normally signal its approach. Sandulak said he didn’t realize when he and Keith had arrived at the narrows, partially due to the darkness. Both drove into the open water.

Friesen was traveling along the shoreline, about 100 metres away, when he stopped and realized both snowmobiles had gone under.

Friesen saw the two in the water and ran towards them. Sandulak was closer to shore and managed to swim within 15 metres. Friesen attempted to reach him, but fell into the water himself.

After breaking and scrambling on ice, Friesen climbed back ashore and threw a rope tied to his snowmobile to Sandulak.

Friesen said he could hear Keith calling for help, but was too far out in the water to be reached.

Sandulak grabbed the rope and was pulled ashore by Friesen.

“Sandulak estimated that he had been in the water for about five minutes and believed that had he not finally caught the rope, he would also have drowned. He credits Brad Friesen for saving his life,” the document says.

Once Sandulak had been rescued, there was no longer any sound of Keith. Believing he had drowned, Sandulak and Friesen called for help. They were picked up by a mutual friend who lived in the area and had been snowmobiling with them earlier.

RCMP divers from B.C. attended the scene on Feb. 1. They located the snow machines the next day, and the body of Keith on Feb. 3, about 75 metres from shore.

“William Sandulak immediately accepted responsibility for Mr. Keith’s death,” the document says.

The outfitter admitted to failing to provide adequate training and protective equipment to employees. Sandulak additionally admitted to failing to conduct a risk assessment, provide adequate instruction and warning of risk to Friesen and Keith. The decision to travel at night made him unable to identify the location of the dangerous conditions.

Trophy Stone Outfitting was issued 10 orders to be in compliance with the OHSA, in addition to the fine. It required that the outfitter provide an incident investigation report; complete hazard assessments; provide training records for staff; establish an emergency response plan; provide buoyancy equipment to staff and training for ATVs and snow machines.

The outfitter hired a health and safety consultant to aid with the orders and achieved full compliance on Oct. 7, court documents state.

“The plan cost TSO $9,500 and is the first of its kind of a Yukon outfitter,” the documents say.

Both the outfitter and Sandulak were given three years to pay the fines.

Trophy Stone Outfitting did not respond to the News’ request for comment.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at