The company that employed a diver who drowned while harvesting red sea urchins near Haida Gwaii has pleaded guilty to offenses related to a failure to provide a safe workplace.
At the time of the Oct. 16, 2018 tragedy, Connor Brown, 26, was working on the motor vessel Diver City and employed as a scuba diver on a three-person crew that included two divers and the vessel’s master, Eric Joseph Blackburn.
The boat was owned by numbered company, 678531 BC Ltd, whose directors were Michael Steinmann and his wife.
Brown’s co-worker and fellow urchin diver, Michael McGee, found Brown unresponsive and entangled in kelp, according to an agreed statement of facts filed in provincial court in Prince Rupert.
He was found 91 minutes after he first entered the water in Hecate Strait, about 200 kilometers south of Prince Rupert, and 70 minutes after he last changed depth. His equipment from him was only on one shoulder, consistent with an attempt at self-rescue.
An examination of Brown’s diving equipment found it was working properly, and his tank of air was two-thirds full.
“It is not known why Brown, a fully qualified occupational scuba diver, drowned at a depth of one meter, with two-thirds of the air in his tank remaining,” says the statement of facts.
“Blackburn and McGee did not know when or for how long Brown was in distress, because Brown and McGee were not in visual contact as required by the (Occupational Health and Safety Regulations).”
The trial of the company, Steinmann and Blackburn was scheduled to get under way Monday and run for three weeks in total, but the three parties entered guilty pleas to counts under the Offense Act.
The statement of facts notes that the company had hired Brown, McGee and Blackburn and that Steinmann hired Blackburn as the master and diving supervisor.
It says that when Steinmann hired Blackburn, he knew that Blackburn had no qualifications in scuba and did not have the required training or certifications of a diving supervisor and was not qualified to act as a diving supervisor.
As the supervisor, Blackburn was required to be knowledgeable about the regulations applicable to the work he supervised and to comply with the regulations of a diving supervisor. Blackburn admitted he failed to ensure the health and safety of the divers.
The two divers began fishing in shallow water at the edge of a kelp bed near Dewdney Island and they dove separately, not using a lifeline or tether, and were not monitored from the surface by a tender, according to the court document.
While underwater, the two divers did not use any type of signal or audio device to communicate with each other or the surface and were not in constant physical or visual contact.
The court document says that Steinmann failed to provide Blackburn, McGee or Brown with adequate information, instruction, training or supervision to ensure their safety.
Safety regulations require that every dive operation have a system of “buddy diving” in place, where two divers act as in-water tenders for their buddy diver, but the court document notes that Brown and McGee were over 60 meters apart and were not in visual or physical contact.
“There was no system in place to monitor the divers while underwater,” says the statement of facts.
The parties are expected to be back in court Friday to set a date for sentencing.
Ted Brown, Connor’s father, said in an interview that the tragedy had had a devastating impact on Connor’s buddies and his entire family and he is hopeful that the court case will bring about improvements to dive safety in the industry.
“I would welcome an inquiry or an inquest, whichever one can create the most meaningful impact to change.”
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