Safety in the Sky

How a fatal helicopter incident in July 1980 set AME on the path to building a Safe Day Everyday culture for explorers in British Columbia

That distinctive tick-tick-tick and whir of a helicopter warming up on a cool, still morning has signaled the beginning of many a field day for explorers working in British Columbia’s remote and mountainous terrains. Helicopters are an important, often essential, tool for exploration where the rugged terrain is not suitable for ground vehicles and challenging to traverse on foot. On a helicopter-supported field program, these ‘birds’ play the role of aerial taxi, tow truck, crane, and occasionally, ambulance. They move crews, samples, drills, and other essential equipment day after day, from dawn to dusk.

Sadly, helicopters are also the largest cause of fatalities in our industry. Between 1980 and 2017, there were 38 fatalities in mineral exploration in Canada where helicopters were the primary cause, according to the 2017 safety survey results published by AME and the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC).

Without exception, we consider in depth the risks specific to helicopters during the risk assessment for any field program where they are employed. Thankfully, we pay attention to past experiences, learn from incidents and near misses, and see trends in similar industries to help us make continuous improvements to our safety systems.

Remembering the Iskut River disaster

July 2020 marks 40 years since the explorers Robert Clarke, Christopher Bruce Gunn, Keith Alexander MacLean, Ruth Anne Nussbaumer, and Ian Ross Shaw were killed in a tragic helicopter accident on July 3, 1980 in the Iskut River area of northeast BC.

David Barr, now a familiar name to AME members, was the exploration manager for the project and had the unenviable task of notifying the families of the deceased about the accident. It comes as no surprise that the experience had a huge impact on him and motivated him to form the first safety committee at the BC Chamber of Mines, as AME was then known, shortly after the incident in the fall of 1980. He believed that accidents could be reduced through an increased awareness of the risks.

The committee set to work writing a safety handbook. AME published the first edition in 1982 and was dedicated to the crew who died two years earlier. In part, the dedication now reads: “The tragic accidents and deaths of those explorers in 1980… has undoubtedly led to a substantially improved recognition of the many factors to be considered in protecting such individuals.”

Many factors improve safety

Reflecting on some 45-years of field experience on mineral exploration projects across Canada, Bill Mercer, VP Exploration Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. and long-standing member of the combined PDAC and AME safety committee, agrees that increased awareness and a combination of changes have made a difference to safety in our industry.

“There is not one single factor that has increased helicopter safety in exploration, but a combination of changes to regulations, attitudes, and behaviours,” says Mercer.

Mercer was working in BC in 1980 and recalls hearing about the Iskut River accident weeks after the event. Improved communication is one of the changes the industry has undergone, he notes, comparing how slowly the news of the incident travelled 40 years ago, to the lightning-fast speed similar news would travel today.

In the 1970’s, when Mercer first began running field programs, there was a “machismo, can-do attitude” for many within the industry. In some cases, colleagues were not encouraged to speak up if they saw unsafe work. Near-misses were passed around as fireside tales, and, except for the federal government Aviation Safety Board (ASB), no individual or organization was tallying or investigating helicopter near misses and accidents. The ASB only investigated some of the serious accidents involving passenger fatalities.

“During my first summer in the field doing industrial mineral exploration, I did not really understand my responsibilities or field safety,” says Mercer of his experience in northern Saskatchewan in 1975 in charge of a camp of 12 geologists, “In the particular case, there was no safety or first aid training for anyone in the camp. As it was my first time in industry, I didn’t know this was wrong.”

In 2005, after many years in the industry, Mercer began asking around and collating information about helicopter incidents and fatalities dating back to 1980. Also in 2005, the PDAC and AME joined forces to send out the first national mineral exploration safety survey and published the results in 2006. National industry-specific data was collected and shared for the first time.

“If you don’t record and check incidents and near misses, you are deprived from learning a lot about how to prevent future accidents” says Mercer.

Combined with crash investigation reports by Federal investigators, the collected data began to show trends that inspired many changes in the industry. Rules to prevent overloading aircraft were introduced, and certain machines, such as the small, low power bubble helicopters were no longer permitted on exploration projects.

However, even to this day, most of the helicopters used for exploration in Canada are under the arbitrary weight limit for reporting near misses at a Federal level.

Attitudes and behaviour

Gradually, attitudes toward safety and incident reporting changed within our industry. A major driver for this came when geologists were required to become registered professionals and the 2004 ‘Westray Bill’ introduced criminal penalties for negligence in the workplace that leads to a fatality.

This liability permeated throughout exploration and mining companies who are now responsible for training and preparing workers to be safe and for not punishing workers for reporting near misses. Overall, this has led to fewer incidents, but fatalities do still occur.

“Lots of big mining companies show statistics for the last 10 to 20 years that show the number of accidents dramatically dropping, but the number of fatalities has often not changed,” notes Mercer, “It’s very hard to know how you change that, it’s not easy, It was previously believed that accidents and fatalities have the same causes, but the data suggests otherwise.”

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the focus was on mechanics and making machines and equipment safer to use, rather than on attitudes, behaviours and how people think. This is particularly relevant to helicopter safety. Based on the many helicopter accident reports Mercer has read, he has noticed that few incidents today are purely mechanical and are more often attributed to a decision made by the pilot. And in many of those cases, the pilot was forced to decide on a course of action under challenging conditions where vision was limited, such as sun glare, cloud or blowing snow.

Looking ahead

So much has changed since July 1980 but we have work to do. Mercer and others strongly believe that building a safer industry in the future will be guided by learning more about how people think and what is often referred to as a “Safety Culture”.

“Now, when we teach health and safety courses, fifty percent is about how people think about safety, as opposed to the mechanics of the machinery,” says Mercer.

We dedicate this story to the mineral exploration colleagues we have lost in aviation accidents, and to the families and friends left behind.

Download the latest aviation safety resources for mineral explorers from https://amebc.ca/health-safety/ and  https://www.pdac.ca/priorities/responsible-exploration/e3-plus/toolkits/health-and-safety