The tragic death of three men after an ammonia leak at Fernie Memorial Arena in 2017 reverberated through the hockey community and among all those who run and use ice rinks.
So word that the Chiefs Development Group was handed a $3,500 fine last June for several safety deficiencies involving toxic gases at the Chilliwack Coliseum last year may come as a shock to arena users.
The fine came one and a half years after a WorkSafeBC inspection on Dec. 17, 2017 led to 11 orders to comply with various Occupational Health and Safety Regulation violations. Most of the orders referred to procedures and written safety plans to deal with anhydrous ammonia, which is a refrigerant and a toxic gas used in most arenas.
But there were also orders regarding a shortage of respirators on site, alarms that could not be heard in some parts of the building, and most seriously: “the ventilation system exhaust was not designed to exhaust ammonia directly to the outdoors in a safe manner.”
After the Dec. 17, 2017 visit that ordered the Chiefs Development Group to comply and have a report ready by Jan. 29, 2018, a WorkSafeBC inspector made at least eight more visits to the building until Sept. 11, 2019 when all orders were fixed.
The penalty of $3,570.12 was handed down June 18, 2019 while there were still four orders outstanding, including the order for the new ventilation system, according to inspection reports obtained by The Progress.
And while it appeared the Chiefs acted slowly based on outstanding orders outlined in eight reports over 18 months, vice-president of business operations Barry Douglas said they wanted to ensure everything was done to as high a standard as possible.
”Brian [Maloney] and I took this very, very seriously,” Douglas said during a meeting at the Chiefs’ office this week. “It was not a matter of just getting it in time for the deadlines, it was a matter of getting it right.”
(Maloney is the head coach of the Chiefs junior A team, but also general manager of building and hockey operations for the Chiefs Development Group.)
Assistant engineer John McKerracher who is the head of the health and safety committee for the arena shared the detailed “Anhydrous Ammonia Exposure Control Plan” for the Coliseum that was created in October 2018 and revised this last September to meet WorkSafeBC guidelines. McKerracher said ever since the Fernie incident, every arena owner has had to create professional and unique ammonia safety plans.
“Every since Fernie everybody’s got to have one of these,” he said pointing to the thick red binder full of technical documents. “And we can’t swap this with anyone else. It’s got to be unique to your building.”
|New venting in the event of an ammonia leak at the Chilliwack Coliseum will take the toxic gases to the roof rather than out on the sidewalk. The work was done to meet WorkSafeBC requirements after the Chiefs Development Group was fined more than $3,500 on June 18, 2019. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)|
On a tour of the facility, McKerracher showed off the physical work that had been done to comply with orders, along with the paperwork required. Douglas said there was never any animosity regarding the orders handed to them, and they were happy to be open and honest about the process.
And the work the Chiefs did was soon tested. Just one month after full compliance, on Oct. 24, 2019, there was a small ammonia leak at the Coliseum. The incident occurred due to a faulty valve, and according to McKerracher and Douglas, as confirmed by a follow-up report by WorkSafeBC, all the safety procedures were followed properly.
The alarms worked, staff were evacuated, Technical Safety BC was notified, and a contractor was quickly contacted to replace the valve.
“It was clockwork,” Douglas said of the safety procedures following the leak.
It was back on Oct. 17, 2017 when three men died after an ammonia leak at Fernie Memorial Arena: 59-year-old Wayne Hornquist, 52-year-old Lloyd Smith and 46-year-old Jason Podloski.
Since then, there have been other non-fatal incidents at arenas around the province. On Feb. 27, 2019 there was an ammonia leak at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook. And on Sept. 12, 2019 there was an ammonia leak at the Comox Valley Sports Centre on Vancouver Island.
Two years after the fatal ammonia release in Fernie, in October 2019, Technical Safety BC (TSBC) emphasized the need for continued safety enhancements across industry to reduce the potential of ammonia release incidents from refrigeration systems.
TSBC’s incident investigation report found the tragedy was caused by decisions to operate an aging ice-chilling system past its service life and with a known leak.
“If your refrigeration systems use ammonia, it is critical to understand the hazards, have qualified employees in place to deal with this complex equipment, and be aware of the risks presented by aging equipment,” TSBC president and CEO Catherine Roome said in a press release, adding that she’s encouraged by the number of municipalities replacing aging equipment in public arenas and ice rinks.
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