Expert wants Saskatchewan to implement changes to penalize employers violating OHS rules

Co-op grocery store goes unpunished after two teen workers were poisoned at work

Expert wants Saskatchewan to implement changes to penalize employers violating OHS rules

One occupational health and safety expert is calling on the Saskatchewan government to make regulatory changes to ensure employers are appropriately penalized for exposing workers to harm in the workplace.

Currently, many provinces don't have the ability to issue hefty fines directly to workplaces that put employees in harm's way, said Sean Tucker, a professor of occupational health and safety at the University of Regina, in a CBC report.

Instead, they can only order employers to fix violations – with no fines – or they can try to pursue large fines in court, which is costly and can take years, he said.

Two Co-op grocery teen employees got poisoned

The statement comes after two teenagers working at Gateway Co-op grocery in Saskatchewan were poisoned on the job last year.

Wil Krotenko started feeling sick soon after starting his shift on Oct. 23 when his manager tasked him with cleaning enclosed areas of the meat department with a gas-powered pressure washer.

"I started feeling lightheaded and dizzy," he said, according to the CBC report. He staggered to the front of the store, he said, “and I guess that's when I collapsed."

He had to be airlifted to Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton with severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

Krotenko spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber to replace the high levels of carbon monoxide in his blood with oxygen.

"He was basically at death's door," said Wil's father, Kurt Krotenko, in the same report. "If he would have passed out in that meat department alone with the pressure washer on.… He could have been dead right there."

An occupational Health and Safety report on the incident noted that carbon monoxide levels in the confined space where Krotenko was working were up to 60 times higher than what's considered safe over an eight-hour period under Saskatchewan's occupational health regulations, reported CBC.

Just the day before the incident, another teen worker had told their supervisor that “he passed out”, apparently from trying to do the same task assigned to Krotenko, based on an exchange of text messages between the supervisor and the worker posted on the CBC article.

The supervisor even told the worker: “I’m pretty sure you’re sick from the fumes of this pressure washer[.] It’s really bad, you might need to go to the hospital.”

Both teens were unsupervised and received no training on how to use the equipment, reported CBC, citing statements from the teenage workers’ families and the workplace safety report.

Co-op broke four Occupational Health and Safety Regulations: 

  • failing to provide worker health and safety training
  • failure to provide adequate supervision
  • allowing employees under the age of 16 to work in a hazardous space
  • exposing young workers to dangerous chemicals or substances

Co-op was ordered to get into compliance with the rules it had broken within 11 weeks but faced no fines or other repercussions. The employer has complied, it Co-op said.

"My son was almost killed on the job, and [Occupational Health and Safety] only gave four contraventions to the Co-op and no fines. I find that ridiculous," said Kurt Krotenko in the CBC article.

Potential long-term health problems from poisoning

After the incident, the teenage Krotenko now gets cluster headaches, which are severely painful, especially around the eyes, Krotenko and his parents said, according to the report.

"It's really hard to focus when I have headaches," Wil Krotenko said. "I think that's why my grades, like, have declined."

After his carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s possible Wil Krotenko could face long-term neurological, cognitive, physical and emotional problems, noted Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and an emergency physician, in the CBC report.

"He's going to need support," the doctor said.

Expert calls for Administrative Monetary Penalties

"This one is certainly egregious," Tucker, the OHS professor, said in the CBC report, pertaining to the poisonings at Gateway Co-Op. 

"No training, no supervision. You've got a 14 year old doing work that, legally, they're not supposed to be doing… so many problems here."

She said that the government must put in place other tools such as administrative penalties so that for serious incidents that won’t go through a prosecution, “there can be a significant financial penalty” on the employer, Tucker said.

Administrative Monetary Penalties (AMPs) – severe fines that fill the gap between written orders to fix problems and court prosecution – is the solution, she said.

However, Saskatchewan’s labour ministry has no plans to implement AMPs.

Tucker said that charges under Saskatchewan's occupational health and safety law should be made, but that would require Saskatchewan's Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety to pursue charges through the Ministry of Justice.

The ministry has no plans of doing that, at least for now, according to the CBC report.

"However, charges can be filed any time within two years from the date of the incident if new or additional evidence warrants it," a spokesperson said via email, according to CBC.