Work resumes at Agrium's Vanscoy, Sask., potash mine after 2nd accident

Safety advocates in Saskatchewan say two incidents at one Saskatoon area mine just weeks apart are indicative of a bigger problem involving workplace safety across the province.

Safety advocates believe the 2 incidents are indicative of a bigger problem in Saskatchewan

The Vanscoy Agrium Potash mine is located about 30 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon. (CBC News)

Safety advocates in Saskatchewan say two incidents at one Saskatoon-area mine just weeks apart are indicative of a bigger problem involving workplace safety across the province.

A man was airlifted to hospital in Saskatoon on Sunday after he was seriously injured at the Vanscoy Agrium potash mine, just two weeks after 29-year-old Chad Wiklun was killed following an incident at the same mine. 

"It's really an unfortunate circumstance that we have in very short order another very serious accident at that mine," said Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. "Any accident you know is part if a deeper problem. I'm very concerned about it."

And workers should be as well, he said.

Federation of Labour slams province 

The two incidents at the Vanscoy mine come on the heels of another workplace fatality in the province.

A man was killed in late July after an industrial accident at the construction site of Saskatchewan's children's hospital. 

Hubich believes the incidents are all the result of a government decision to cut back the number of random workplace health and safety inspections.

"I think that's what we're seeing now is more accidents because employers for the most part aren't worried that they aren't going to get their sites inspected," Hubich said.

Workplace health and safety advocate Jesse Todd agrees. 

"I think we need to have the government take the health and safety file a little more seriously," Todd said. "We hear a lot of lip service but I don't think we've really put the resources into it that there should be."

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety said 22 per cent of the nearly 1,200 workplace visits between April 1 and July 31, 2016 were random visits by inspectors.

The province admits there has been a change to random inspections that sees inspectors target specific industries and specific employers with high incident rates.

"The construction and mining industries continue to receive targeted attention by the OHS Division at both the industry and employer level," the province said. 

Refuse unsafe work: advocates 

Todd called the two accidents at Vanscoy an "unfortunate coincidence" and hopes Agrium takes time to overhaul their health and safety protocols. Both he and Hubich said the responsibility also falls onto the workers themselves who should refuse to work if they believe working conditions aren't safe.

"No employer can discipline you for exercising that right," Todd said. "You talk to a lot of people that are afraid to speak up, especially if they are younger workers."

For its part, Agrium said they encourage their workers to report unsafe work and are committed to making sure incidents like the two this month don't happen again. 

"It's not just their right but their responsibility to refuse work if it's unsafe and it would never be our intent to put workers in unsafe working conditions," said Todd Steen, general manager of the Vanscoy Agrium site.

'Rough blow' for the site

"We're going to make sure that these things don't happen again and it's a shame that they did but we have to learn," he said. "It's our responsibility to learn from them and make sure they don't happen again."

Chad Wiklun pictured here with his daughters, Casey, 8, and Carsyn, 6. (Submitted by Celina Danis)

Steen said the worker involved in last Sunday's incident was "a fairly experienced guy" who worked underground at the mine. The accident came while workers were still mourning Wiklun's death. 

"Obviously our operation is devastated," he said. "Our people are like a family out there so for something like this to happen while we're still really mourning Chad's passing has been a rough blow for the site."

This has been one of the roughest months of all of our lives.- Todd Steen , general manager of Vanscoy Agriun  potash mine 

Steen said the job does come with its hazards, but they can be mitigated to ensure a safe workplace. Work at the site is slowly ramping up again, but morale remains low.

"It's been hard for all of us. It's been really hard," he said. "This has been one of the roughest months of all of our lives, I would say." 

Wilkun's death was the ninth fatality at the Vanscoy mine since it opened. 

"We're not going to let this happen anymore," Steen said. "We're here to safely produce potash." 

with files from CBC's Jennifer Quesnel