Yukon outfitter, co-owner fined $46K over workplace safety violations

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A Yukon outfitting business and its director have been fined more than $40,000 for workplace safety violations related to the 2019 death of an employee whose snowmobile fell into open water.

It's a tragic case, according to a Yukon government lawyer, that highlights the need for outfitters to start taking plans, policies and procedures around occupational safety seriously.

Trophy Stone Outfitting and William Sandulak both pleaded guilty to one count each under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in territorial court on Jan. 5.

Trophy Stone pleaded guilty to failing to ensure work techniques and procedures were in place to prevent the risk of occupational injuries, while Sandulak pleaded guilty to failing to provide proper training to an employee to avoid undue risk.

The charges relate to employee Jason Keith, who died after his snowmobile fell into open water in the Drury Lake area on Jan. 28, 2019.

Employee had little snowmobile experience

According to an agreed statement of facts, Keith, Sandulak and a third employee had gone out on snowmobiles and skimmers loaded with gear to check on two of Trophy Stone's camps in the Drury Lake area in preparation for the upcoming season.

Keith, who was from Alberta and hired by the outfitter in 2018, "had spent many years in the bush but did not appear to be as experienced with a snow machine as the others," the document notes. He also didn't know how to swim.

The three made it to the first camp, where they had originally planned on staying overnight, but decided to continue on to the second one instead.

Driving in the dark, the men approached Drury Lake, with the third employee travelling along the shoreline. Keith and Sandulak were about 100 to 200 metres out on the lake.

When they approached an area known as "the narrows," which is described as "dangerous and unpredictable," the third employee was able to navigate around it but Keith and Sandulak, being further out on the lake, didn't know where they were until it was too late.

Both their snowmobiles fell into open water.

The agreed statement of facts says none of the men were wearing life jackets or floater coats, nor were they equipped with ice picks. The snowmobiles also didn't have floating ropes or buoyancy devices, and Trophy Stone didn't have safety protocols about travelling at night, in winter conditions or snowmobile operations.

The third employee was able to save Sandulak, but Keith was too far out in the water to reach.

RCMP divers recovered his body on Feb. 3, 2019.

Outfitters 'on notice' about workplace safety

In court, Lee Kirkpatrick, the lawyer representing the Yukon government on the case, told Judge Karen Ruddy that there have been increasing reports of workplace injuries at outfitting businesses, but little apparent interest from outfitters on addressing the issue. She cited a safety talk hosted in August 2020 that was only attended by a representative from one outfitter — Trophy Stone.

Trophy Stone, for its part, has taken major steps in the wake of Keith's death to remedy its own problems, Kirkpatrick noted, including paying a consultant $9,500 to create a customized health and safety plan for its operations.

Kirkpatrick said that plan is the first of its kind in the territory, and that other outfitters should consider themselves "on notice" that officials will be visiting them this year to check on their respective workplace health and safety plans and procedures.

Despite taking a financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, Trophy Stone has also paid more than $4,000 for an industrial snowmobile safety course with 15 spots. Its own staff will only be taking two of the spots, with the remaining 13 open for staff from other Yukon outfitters.

'Extreme remorse'

Richard Wolson, the lawyer representing Sandulak and Trophy Stone, told the court his clients have shown "extreme remorse" and took "immediate responsibility" for Keith's death, acknowledging that their negligence led to "the death of a dear friend."

"I can tell you that [Sandulak] is haunted by what happened that night," Wilson said, adding that Sandulak still "questions today why he survived and his friend didn't."

As well, despite being "devastated" by the pandemic, Trophy Stone has still attempted to help Keith's family, Wilson continued. Sandulak and other Trophy Stone co-owners flew to Alberta to attend Keith's funeral, and paid for his family to fly to Yukon so they could perform a ceremony at the site of his death.

When forest fires prevented them from reaching the area, staff later completed the ceremony on the family's behalf, and Trophy Stone also donated $15,000 to them as Keith had been a caretaker for his elderly grandmother.

In a joint submission that was accepted by Ruddy, Kirkpatrick and Wolson asked that Sandulak and Trophy Stone be fined an additional $23,000 each.

That brings that total both have spent on addressing the situation to $74,750.

They will have three years to pay the fine.

Sandulak briefly addressed the court, saying he "holds everything pretty close to my heart."

"It's been a long two years."