Edmonton

Disagreement persists decade after worker dies in oilsands accident

The completion of a fatality inquiry into the death of a Chinese foreign worker after a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. workplace accident raises questions about whether an air ambulance could have saved the the worker’s life.

Genbao Ge and another worker were killed in 2007 after a storage tank collapsed on them

A fatality inquiry into the death of a CNRL worker near Fort McMurray whether an air ambulance should have been dispatched to the man to hospital. (HERO Foundation/Submitted)

An inquiry into the death of a Chinese foreign worker at a northern Alberta work site a decade ago is still sparking disagreement over whether the man should have been transported to hospital by air.

Genbao Ge and another worker were killed in a 2007 incident at a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. work site after a storage tank collapsed and they were crushed by the falling steel.

CNRL faced 29 charges for the incident, all of which were stayed or postponed. 

Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Ltd. faced 21 charges which were withdrawn, while its subsidiary, SSEC Canada, faced three charges and was forced to pay $1.5 million in fines.

The fatality inquiry addressed whether Ge should have been airlifted to hospital rather than taken by ground ambulance.

Judge J.R. Jacques will submit a report into Ge's death over the next few months and may offer recommendations. 

Dr. Bernard Bannach, an assistant to the chief medical examiner, told the courtroom Friday that Ge suffered scalp lacerations but he died from a severe chest injury and not a brain injury.

But CNRL's medical director, Dr. Johan Bouwer, told the courtroom Ge indeed had brain injuries and the air pressure change of flying in a helicopter would have had an adverse effect on him.

Ge 'definitely had a brain injury': CNRL

Bannach said the chest injury caused what's called a tension pneumothorax causing air to collect between a person's lung and chest wall.

"This is perhaps the largest pneumothorax I have ever seen in my career," Bannach said.

Two workers died and five others were injured when an oil storage tank which was under construction, collapsed. (CBC News)

But Bouwer said the autopsy reports were inconsistent with what he saw in patient transportation documents.

"This guy definitely had a brain injury," Bouwer said. "If I am wrong, I am in the wrong job."

Bouwer testified Ge's head injuries were so severe that liquid was oozing from the patient's ears and Ge was not conscious while en route to the hospital.

He said CNRL had its own ground abmulance and limited air ambulance capabilities at the time.

Bannach said an intubation treatment that was only available at the hospital would have relieved the buildup of air in Ge's chest.

He stopped short of saying air transportation would have saved Ge's life, but the assistant medical examiner said the faster the patient gets to the hospital in such cases, the better.

Bouwer told the inquiry the ground transportation is the usually quickest way to get workers to the hospital from the Horizon site.

Air used in rare circumstances

Bouwer said CNRL only used air transportation in rare circumstances, such as when the road out of the site is blocked, or if there are multiple casualties.

Genbao Ge and Hongliang Liu died when the 127-metric-ton roof collapsed, raining steel beams on workers below. (Alberta Occupational Health and Safety)

He said he was concerned that transporting Ge by air would be unsafe due to changes in air pressure at high altitudes. However, testimony from the inquiry's last witness, Phoenix Heli-Flight president Paul Spring, questioned that thinking.

Spring, the head of Wood Buffalo's air ambulance service then, said helicopters can fly at lower altitudes when requested.

Alberta Health Services now manages ambulance service in Fort McMurray and the wider region, but at the time of the accident the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was in charge.

Brad Grainger, deputy chief of emergency services for Wood Buffalo, told the inquiry his department got a call for help around 2:30 p.m. on April 27, 2007.
Investigators took this picture of a second storage tank before it also collapsed. (Alberta Occupational Health and Safety)

The department dispatched several ambulances and fire trucks but no helicopter. CNRL confirmed earlier that one wasn't requested.

AHS, municipality await report

In email statements, both AHS and the Wood Buffalo municipality said they would review any recommendations the falality inquiry report makes.

"This was a horrific incident that had a devastating impact on the families and friends of the two workers who died and the five others who were injured," said Alberta Labour spokesperson Matt Dykstra in an email statement Friday.

CNRL declined to comment.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter and via email.

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