Alberta workers need better protection from bears, inquiry into 2014 Suncor death finds

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Lorna Weafer was 36 when she was killed by a bear near Fort McMurray. (Supplied - image credit)
Lorna Weafer was 36 when she was killed by a bear near Fort McMurray. (Supplied - image credit)

A provincial court judge has made four recommendations to improve bear safety for workers after a woman was mauled to death at an oilsands site in 2014.

Judge James Jacques wrote the recommendations after a public fatality inquiry held last June in Fort McMurray. His report was made public Monday.

In 2014, Lorna Weafer was an electrical and instrumentation technician working at a Suncor worksite known as La Bodega, north of Fort McMurray.

Around 2 p.m. on May 7 of that year, the 36-year-old was fatally mauled by a large male cinnamon-coloured black bear while walking from a washroom facility to a shop building.

Weafer screamed for help and her co-workers tried to drive the bear away while the bear dragged her into the nearby forest. The co-workers were throwing rocks, clamps and metal bars, but "failed to deter him," Jacques said in his report.

The plant's emergency services team arrived and drove the bear away with a water cannon.

"By that time it was apparent that Ms. Weafer was no longer alive," wrote Jacques.

RCMP arrived and shot the bear with a rifle as it was trying to return to Weafer's body.

The bear's behaviour and necropsy showed that it was a predatory attack, Jacques said in his report.

He noted that there had been two other bear sightings in the area the previous month.

Several preventative measures were discussed during the inquiry, including bear education, personal deterrents, the use of guns, electrified fences and provincial standards for bear safety.

Jacques made four recommendations:

  • Make bear safety training mandatory for people working in areas near bear habitats, even if they are not working in the forest.

  • Introduce electric fences when possible to prevent bears from interacting with people.

  • Workers in high-risk areas should be trained in and given deterrents such as bear spray.

  • The province should consider introducing bear safety standards for industry.

Guns would create other hazards: judge

At the time Weafer was attacked, there were no firearms available to her co-workers.

Jacques discussed the use of guns in his report. He wrote that using a firearm can have additional dangers, like accidentally hitting the victim.

"It would require excellent marksmanship or a very close approach to the animal, and anyone attempting it would undoubtedly feel a great weight of responsibility," the report says.

At the inquiry, Weafer's father had said that someone being attacked would want someone to try to kill the bear with a gun.

Jacques wrote that having at least one person armed at each Suncor site would "create safety hazards of its own … In an operation as large as the Suncor plant, this option is not practicable."

The judge also explored the possibility of having a locked weapon on site, instead of an armed guard. But he said it would create "logistical issues."

There would need to be a trained employee at each site, entrusted with the keys for the weapon and ammunition. It would again, "exacerbate safety issues," Jacques wrote.

The judge said that he was unable to make any recommendations regarding the use of firearms in the context of the incident that led to Weafer's death.

Since Weafer's death Suncor has put in and improved many wildlife protocols, Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal said Monday.

That includes hiring an onsite wildfire contractor for bear surveillance and monitoring, expanding safety training and introducing wildlife advisories and alerts, Seetal said.

Some employees carry bear spray. There is also fencing in some areas, where feasible.

Seetal said there have been no other maulings or incidents with bears since 2014.

"Our top priority is always the safety of our people," said Seetal.

In an email, Joseph Dow, press secretary for Labour Minister Tyler Shandro, said there have been "no potentially serious incidents, reportable incidents or Workers' Compensation Benefit claims in the past five years related to bears."

Many employers in the Wood Buffalo region have put in bear safety protocols that align with Occupational Health and Safety laws, Dow said.

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