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Parents Of Man Killed In Oilfield H2S Accident Dismayed After Charge Dismissed


November 15, 2018

The parents of a Wawota, Sask., man killed in an oilfield accident more than four years ago say they are “disappointed” by a provincial court judge’s decision to dismiss a workplace safety charge laid against his employer after his death.

The courthouse in Estevan Sask.“It’s a real disappointment … It was just such a letdown,” Dianne Bunz said.

“I was disappointed but not surprised — just put it that way,” Allan Bunz said.

Michael Bunz died on May 22, 2014, near Kipling, Sask., while collecting samples from a facility owned by Harvest Energy Corp. A valve failed, releasing a “deadly, uncontrolled, high-pressure stream” of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas, according to court documents.

The 38-year-old’s employer, Nalco Champion, was subsequently hit with three workplace safety charges. Two were withdrawn during the trial, and Estevan provincial court judge Lane Wiegers dismissed the last in a written decision handed down earlier this month.

While a respirator may have saved Bunz’s life, the H2S release “was not reasonably expected” and there “was no better practical means than was used by Nalco to prevent an H2S exposure beyond the contamination limit,” Wiegers concluded.

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“Much smaller, short-term H2S exposures were reasonably foreseeable and Nalco had appropriate equipment and procedures in place to ensure such exposures would not exceed the contamination limit,” Wiegers wrote in his decision.

In an interview days after the decision was delivered, Bunz’s parents questioned why the valve failure was unanticipated and suggested more needs to be done to improve the province’s occupational health and safety laws.

“As employees, we have to anticipate just about everything that can happen at work,” Dianne said. Allan added that stronger laws could prevent another wife and kids from never seeing their husband and father again.

“We remain deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague Michael Bunz, and our thoughts continue to be with his family, friends and close coworkers,” Ecolab spokesman Roman Blahoski said in an email.

Blahoski said the company had no further comment.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the Crown is considering whether to appeal the decision.

Bunz was collecting liquid samples from the facility — a task he had performed thousands of times previously — which would be used to determine if the pipes carrying crude oil were corroded, according to court documents.

While using a crescent wrench to remove a pressure gauge, Bunz “unwittingly” removed the retainer ring keeping a ball valve in place, leaving only a wax film between himself and the contents of the pipe, the decision states.

At that point, the documents state, Bunz detected a small leak and attempted to repair it by shutting off the pipe. At that point the ball from the valve was “ejected,” along with a deadly stream of toxic liquid and gas.

Bunz, who was not wearing a respirator and didn’t have one with him, “was quickly overwhelmed,” Wiegers wrote in his decision.

Nalco Champion was subsequently charged under the province’s workplace safety laws with failing to take all practicable steps to prevent workers being exposed to hazardous chemical or biological substances “to an extent that it is likely to be harmful.”

In his 29-page decision, Wiegers considered a wide range of evidence related to oilfield safety practices and the safety policies of both Nalco Champion and Harvest Energy, particularly with respect to their policies on respirators.

Nalco submitted that neither it nor most of its clients required employees to wear respirators, the decision states. Wiegers wrote that the company now requires all of its workers to wear the devices when drawing liquid samples.

The judge concluded that it’s impossible to know whether Bunz would have survived the incident had he been wearing a respirator with a 30-minute supply of oxygen. His foot was stuck between a “header apparatus” and an interior wall when he died.

At the same time, the judge wrote, it is “reasonable” to infer that Bunz would have done everything in his power to leave the building after the valve failed, and that a respirator would have kept him from being overwhelmed by the toxic gas for up to 30 minutes.

Ultimately, however, Wiegers concluded that the fatal H2S exposure was “highly unlikely,” and dismissed the charge.

“Michael Bunz was loved and respected as a person. Several of Mr. Bunz’s Nalco colleagues testified in these proceedings and it was evident they remain deeply moved by their loss,” Wiegers wrote.

While his parents said they are confident Nalco Champion has “really stepped up” its workplace safety procedures and culture in the aftermath of their son’s accident, both want stronger provincial laws.

“I think more has to be done … I hope that we can get some participation from some of our MLAs, just starting to see that there needs to be some more follow-up,” Dianne said.

“It’s definitely a concern, I think.”

Source: Star Phoenix

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