Yukon workers’ compensation board in northern Canada working with outfitters to improve workplace safety

The Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board building in Whitehorse. Safety officers are continuing to work with outfitters this year on improving workplace safety measures. (Andrew Robulack, Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board)
Safety officers visited 13 outfitting camps last year to share resources, suggest improvements

The board in charge of occupational health and safety in Yukon will be continuing its outreach efforts to outfitters this year in the wake of a case that saw one of them fined $46,000 for safety issues that contributed to the death of an employee.

Although complaints against outfitters are rare, Kurt Dieckmann, president and CEO of the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, told CBC that injury claims from outfitter employees have been on the rise since 2017.

“We do know that there are gaps in, sort of, the understanding that outfitters and a lot of other employers in the territory have as to what their obligations are under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations,” he said.

“They have to take measures to address this.”

Outfitter employees face ‘very unique hazards’

According to Dieckmann, the board receives between four and 12 claims from outfitter employees any given year, with some of them involving “fairly serious” and “fairly high-cost” injuries.

Due to the nature of outfitting work — remote locations, tough terrain, inclement weather, close interaction with both domestic and wild animals — employees face some “very unique hazards” on the job that create “addition challenges when it comes to putting safety programs in place,” Dieckman said.

“We have seen a lot of injuries resulting from interactions with horses, you know —  falling off horses, being kicked by a horse, holding a horse, and the horse tearing a shoulder out and those kinds of things,” he said.

“They also have to deal with wild animals as well, and not only wild animals, but you’ve got insects, you’ve got just a wide variety of hazards that are not faced in, you know, workplaces like construction and mining and office environments.”

Industry-wide safety plan underway

The board began working with the Yukon Outfitters Association, which represents 14 of the about 20 outfitters in the territory, in 2017 on drafting an industry-wide safety program similar to the one the board had created with the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association.

Dieckmann said the board’s “fear was that something tragic could happen” if workplace safety issues weren’t dealt with; that fear turned into reality in January 2019 after a employee of Trophy Stone Outfitting drowned after his snowmobile fell into open water while he was out checking on the outfitter’s camps.

Trophy Stone and one of its co-owners each recently pled guilty in territorial court to a charge under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. As part of its efforts in remedying the issues that contributed to the death, the outfitter paid for the creation of a customized workplace health and safety plan, becoming the first outfitter in the territory to have a plan of that nature.

While work on the industry-wide safety plan stalled in 2020 due to COVID-19 limiting opportunities to meet, Dieckmann said safety officers still managed to visit 13 outfitting camps during the season to talk about planning and to share occupational health and safety resources.

He said the officers are planning on visiting outfitter camps again this year “to try and engage them in their workplaces, because that’s really where it’s the most effective.

“We need to see not just only outfitters, but all employers taking health and safety seriously,” he said, explaining that it was crucial for employers to understand their obligations and ensure their employees have the tools and training to protect themselves and others.

“I know from personal experience and from speaking with a lot of the employers who have had serious injuries or fatalities in their workplace, it hits the workplace very, very hard when it does happen, and no employer I’ve ever met has been so laissez-faire or casual that they don’t care if a worker gets seriously injured or killed.”

Related stories from around the North:

Finland: Safety debate sparked in Arctic Finland after hunter shoots cyclist in national park, Yle News

Jackie Hong, CBC News

Jackie Hong is a reporter for CBC North in Whitehorse. She was previously the courts and crime reporter at the Yukon News and, before moving North in 2017, was a reporter at the Toronto Star where she covered everything from murder trials to escaped capybaras.

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