Ice rink inspection blitz leaves some B.C. towns facing hefty bills

In reaction to the tragedy that left three men at the Fernie Memorial Arena, WorkSafeBC has issued over 1.000 safety compliance orders at provincial rinks.

WorkSafeBC issues over 1,000 safety compliance orders in wake of Fernie ammonia leak that killed three men

Signs like this one at the Denman Arena in Vancouver are a required safety measure. (David Horemans/CBC)

The mayor of Rossland says it will be a struggle for her town to come up with $200,000 needed to keep the Rossland Arena operating after a WorkSafeBC inspection found significant safety upgrades were needed around the rink's ammonia ice making plant.

"We have an arena that was built in the early 1950's and it's had some upgrades, but obviously it needs a lot more," said Kathy Moore.

"Mostly it's to do with ventilation, to exhaust any toxic gas that may come off the ammonia plant."

The Rossland Arena was one of 181 ammonia rinks and recreation facilities examined during a WorkSafeBC inspection blitz that launched last November, a month after three men died from ammonia exposure while trying to fix the ice plant at the Fernie Memorial Arena.

Wayne Hornquist, left, Lloyd Smith, centre, and Jason Podloski, right, died Oct. 17, 2017 while trying to repair the Fernie Memorial Arena ammonia ice making plant. (City of Fernie/Facebook)

According to WorkSafeBC, 1,134 safety deficiencies were cited, with deadlines imposed for getting the problems fixed. The most common order issued involved the installation and testing — or lack of — of ammonia alarms.

Stop using those

The PNE Coliseum in Vancouver was the only rink issued a more serious "stop use" order over the use of lit sulphur sticks to test for ammonia leaks.

According to the WorkSafeBC inspection report, sulphur sticks are not only toxic, they could ignite a fire or explosion if ammonia gas was present in a high enough concentration. Workers were warned to stop using the sticks immediately.

In an email, WorkSafeBC said none of the 1,134 orders issued presented a critical safety issue to the public.

A memorial for the three men killed sits outside of City Hall in Fernie, B.C. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

In Golden, upgrades to the Golden Centennial Arena have been pegged at costing $110,000. Orders issued by WorkSafeBC account for $60,000 of that total, with an additional $50,000 being put toward "preemptively addressing" potential mechanical problems with the ammonia plant, according to Chris Cochrane, the Town of Golden's manager of operations.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District has agreed to pay for the majority of the Golden costs.

"That's the biggest issue in a smaller place — available budget to address these things," said Cochrane.

In Lillooet, safety deficiencies identified by WorksafeBC will cost $13,000 to fix — not a huge amount, but still, money that wasn't in the budget.

According to Lillooet manager of recreation, Bain Gair, half of the total expenditure will go toward installing an ammonia pressure relief system.

'Wasn't being strictly enforced'

"It's about $6,500 and it's something that came out of the blue," said Gair.

"According to the inspector, it's something that's been in the regulations for WorkSafe for some time, but wasn't being strictly enforced. I think in the wake of the Fernie incident they decided they were going to enforce it."

Gair says the Lillooet Minor Hockey Association has donated $5,000 to help cover the costs.

Multiple investigations are ongoing around the fatal ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena. The RCMP says it has not yet determined whether there will be criminal charges resulting from its investigation. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

In Rossland, arena user groups have also been asked to help pay the bill for rink upgrades. The town has come up with $110,000 in funds, leaving it $90,000 short.

"We're hoping that the community comes forward and wants to contribute to this enterprise because without doing this work we won't be able to open in October," said Moore. 

Pressurized liquid ammonia is an inexpensive and effective refrigerant, but highly toxic. Once released into the air, it turns into a colourless vapour which can be immediately fatal. Lesser concentrations can result in severe burns to skin eyes and lungs.

WorkSafeBC is responsible for overseeing the health and safety of B.C. workers. A separate body, Technical Safety B.C., is mandated to oversee the safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment such as ice making plants.