"11 YEARS AGO I WAS TELLING PEOPLE THIS BOAT WILL GO DOWN AND SOMEBODY WON'T MAKE IT."
KELOWNA – A former Tolko employee says he quit in 2006 because concerns for the safety of the boom boats he operated were being ignored.
A decade later one of the boats is at the bottom of Okanagan Lake and the man who was operating it is dead. Gorden James isn’t surprised.
He worked as a boom boat operator at Tolko Industries in Kelowna until Dec. 16, 2006, he says. He was using the boat to load logs onto a lift before they were bundled, peeled and taken into the mill. The boat, he says, was leaking as usual.
“It was very cold, the boat was taking on water, it was common knowledge that (the boats) were not in great condition. They had sank before and I was wearing steel toe boots, jeans a hard hat and a life jacket that wouldn’t keep a mouse afloat. I lost it. I went home.”
James, who worked at the Kelowna mill for six years, says what happened on his last day was merely the final straw. Endangering himself on the job had become almost routine.
"Tolko will hold up this prized safety record and say they have no lost time due to injury and it’s absolutely bunk,” he says. “They would just put injured people on light duty to eliminate lost time. I have no faith in Tolko’s safety commitment whatsoever.”
Over the six years he worked there, James broke ribs and a hand and when he fell through a grate onto the engine of a saw, injuring his back, he was told to return to work the next day.
Concerns with equipment were also ignored and maintenance was almost non-existent.
“I approached the supervisors and told them when lifejackets are exposed to UV for a long time they’re not as buoyant anymore,” he says. “(Management) knew boats would take on water and sometimes we would have to race back to shore. Their attitude was that if it hurt productivity it was to be avoided.”
The boom boat that sank in Kelowna Monday night Jan. 30, took the life of James’ former co-worker Ivor Lundin, who was about to retire after 20 years with the company.
“The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard what happened to Ivor is that there’s been the same issues all these years,” he says. “I was sick to my stomach. Eleven years ago I was telling people this boat will go down and somebody won’t make it.”
“It’s not like they can’t do the maintenance, it’s just budgeting, it’s saving a few bucks,” he says. “You have to take the boat out of the water and that’s downtime. If they took them out of the water the mill has no lumber.”
James doesn’t speculate on what caused the boat to sink but says Lundin could have been in trouble up to an hour before any of the six other employees working the graveyard shift with him noticed he was missing.
“I had some (former) coworkers reach out today and it sounds like whatever happened, happened really quick," he says. “But you're on your own when you’re out there. If someone doesn’t show up they assume they’re having trouble and are running behind.
“If barkers run out of wood they can’t work so they call and say ‘Hey we’re out of wood.' I’ll come back and say I’m having a problem with the bundle or a piece of equipment. That’s what usually happens but sometimes they get down time and they just take it.”
One time, he says, his boat lost power and, unable to use the radio, he used his personal cell phone to call the company. He couldn’t get through.
“I had to phone my wife at home at 3 a.m. and tell her to keep calling the mill until somebody answers. I pike-pulled my way back to shore. It could have been an hour or more.”
A call to Tolko Industries media communications group was not returned and Worksafe B.C. will only say they are investigating.
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