British Columbia

Falling rock on Kiewit worksite prompts comparisons to Sam Fitzpatrick's death

News of an "unexpected rock fall" at a remote Kiewit worksite in B.C. is causing alarm for friends of a young man killed by a falling rock on a different Kiewit project a decade ago.

Company spokesperson says Kiewit has 'extensive processes and precautions in place' to ensure safety

Sam Fitzpatrick, 24, was killed by a falling boulder on a Kiewit Corporation worksite in B.C.'s Toba Inlet on Feb. 22, 2009. (Christine Tamburri)

News of an "unexpected rock fall" at a remote Kiewit worksite in B.C. is causing alarm for friends of a young man killed by a falling rock on a different Kiewit project a decade ago.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the incident happened early last week on the Big Bar landslide project north of Lillooet in B.C.'s southern Interior. A bulletin posted online said no one was injured, but the rock fall "highlighted the hazardous and dynamic operations" on the site.

WorkSafeBC is investigating. The workplace safety body became aware of the incident this Monday, after CBC reached out with questions.

Mike Pearson was livid when he read about the incident, and even more angry when he learned that a major component of Kiewit's revised safety plan is to have someone serve as a "spotter" to watch for falling rock and warn workers below by air horn and radio.

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Pearson said.

He's a family friend of Sam Fitzpatrick, who was crushed to death by a falling rock on a Kiewit project in 2009, just one day after another rock had seriously damaged some heavy equipment.

As Pearson points out, others working on the project had tried to warn Fitzpatrick of the dangerous boulder tumbling down the slope toward him.

"Sammy was busy working on his drill, drilling away, and he could not hear the warnings. People on the radio were yelling at him and his co-workers were yelling at him, and he was in a noisy environment and couldn't hear them," Pearson said.

Kiewit and two former managers for the company are charged with criminal negligence causing death in the incident, and the trial is expected to begin in November. The company has said it plans to mount a strong defence.

Those charges didn't affect the company's ability to secure the $17.6 million federal contract to clear out the landslide at Big Bar and make way for the annual salmon spawning migration.

'Nothing is more important than the safety of our projects'

Public Services and Procurement Canada says three rocks were involved in the incident at Big Bar, for a total volume of under two cubic metres. According to Kiewit, the rock fall happened at night, when there were no workers on the site, and no equipment was damaged.

Bob Kula, Kiewit's vice-president of corporate communication, told CBC in an email that the company began investigating the incident immediately after the rock fall was discovered. He said Kiewit has followed all reporting guidelines for its federal government contract.

WorkSafeBC contacted Kiewit late Monday night, Kula said, "after you [CBC] sent us an email with your questions. We've responded to WorkSafe with the information they requested and cooperated in all respects."

He said that the company has "extensive processes and precautions in place" to ensure slopes are safe before allowing people to work on them.

"At Kiewit, nothing is more important than the safety of our projects. That includes all of our operations on the Big Bar landslide project," Kula said.

He explained that a third party geotechnical engineer inspects the area before anyone can start work, and Kiewit personnel are expected to reassess conditions every day.

Since the rock fall last week, Kiewit has also installed a concrete retaining wall in the area where it happened, limited the number of workers on site and promised to install a mesh curtain to contain falling rocks — but only after a fish ladder is constructed to help salmon move past the slide site.

Kiewit has promised to install a mesh curtain to contain falling rocks once construction of a fish ladder is complete. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Pearson, who was a blasting superintendent for Kiewit on the Sea to Sky Highway upgrades ahead of the 2010 Olympics, doesn't believe those precautions are adequate.

"Put the wire mesh on now to protect the guys working below," he argued. "You can't leave that risk above the workers and then hope for the best."

He wants to see workers pulled off the project until their safety can be assured.

"I know the salmon run is important, but I don't see that risking workers is a fair trade for getting a salmon run," Pearson said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada deferred questions about the project to Public Services and Procurement Canada, which described Kiewit as a "proactive" contractor when it comes to workplace safety. An email from the federal department said it is not aware of any workers on the Big Bar site expressing concerns about their safety.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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