Worker Fatally Mauled by Brown Bear
Alaska FACE Investigation 98AK006
July 8, 1998
A worker was killed when he was mauled by a brown bear. The attack occurred while the victim and other members of a six-man crew were setting recording lines and sensors for a seismic exploration project. The crew was walking down a flagged trail, unaware that a bear den was approximately 40 feet away. As they passed the den, the bear emerged and attacked the victim. A co-worker, walking behind the victim, climbed a nearby tree and yelled a warning to the other workers. After attacking the victim, the bear went to a tree that another crewmember had climbed, stood up to paw at the worker's foot, and then walked away. After the bear left, co-workers radioed for medical assistance. A helicopter brought an emergency medical technician to the area. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.
Based on the findings of the investigation, to prevent similar occurrences, employers should:
- Ensure that workers receive training prior to starting field work to recognize bear den habitat and react appropriately to animal encounters; additional training should be provided as needed to supplement techniques and knowledge;
- Schedule daily flights over work areas to assess site conditions before sending crews into the field;
- Consider having a person with wilderness training and experience on each crew to evaluate habitat for potential den sites and assist crewmembers in field safety issues;
- Consider providing animal deterrents such as pepper spray or air horns and training in their proper use and storage to all personnel that perform duties in remote areas.
At 1:45 PM on February 8, 1998, a 40-year-old male worker on a recording crew (the victim) was mauled when he walked past an occupied bear den. On February 9, 1998, Alaska Department of Labor (AKDOL) notified the Alaska Division of Public Health, Section of Epidemiology. An investigation involving an Injury Prevention Specialist for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Section of Epidemiology ensued on February 11, 1998. The incident was reviewed with AKDOL and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials. Alaska State Troopers, USFWS, Medical Examiner, and AKDOL reports were requested.
The privately owned company was established in 1981 to conduct seismic surveys for sub-surface mapping for oil. Field operations were conducted at various times of the year depending on terrain and other environmental factors affecting accessibility to the study areas. At the time of the incident, the company employed 175 to 200 workers of which 43 workers were members of a "recording crew." The recording crew consisted of both permanent employees and seasonally hired helpers (laborers). The victim was hired out-of-state as a seismic helper for the recording crew. He had been employed by the company for 41 days and had relocated to the Alaska site 5 days prior to the attack.
The company had a written safety and health plan. All employees were required to attend an orientation on initial hiring. The orientation included company policies, task instruction, and personal protective equipment. In addition, Alaska crewmembers received orientation on the project location and working conditions; i.e., weather, clothing requirements, transportation safety, and wilderness and wildlife hazards. The crews also conducted regular safety meetings. The victim had a limited command of English and had relied on a co-worker to act as an interpreter during these meetings. This was the second occupied bear den encounter during the project period and the first fatality for the company.
The incident occurred in a wildlife refuge located in southcentral Alaska. The terrain was hilly with elevations varying from 20-30 feet to 200 feet or more. Ground conditions consisted primarily of birch trees and minimal to moderate brush and saplings covered by approximately 2 to 3 feet of snow. Wetlands, consisting of marshes, ponds, and small lakes, were frozen with a minimum ice thickness of 2 to 3 inches. Due to the nature of the work, the survey was done in the winter months when wetlands were frozen. Since there were no roads in the study area, crewmembers and supplies were transported by helicopter to and from a base camp and other staging areas. All crewmembers were equipped with two-way radios when away from base camp.
The recording crew was responsible for the placement and removal of equipment necessary for a seismic survey. The equipment, seismic lines (cables) with sensors (geophones), was placed across the surface of the study area in a precise, tightly spaced grid pattern. Gridlines ran straight and parallel at 1/4-mile intervals through the study area. In order for the recording crew to properly place geophones, a survey crew would first flag or mark trails to indicate the recording lines. The recording crew, which was divided into smaller field crews of two to six workers, would follow these marked trails or lines. After the placement of the recording equipment, an explosive charge was detonated (by another crew) below ground to produce compression waves that were received and recorded by the sensors. The recording crew would then return to collect the equipment.
The wildlife refuge consisted of different types of Alaska habitat and several species of wildlife, including black and brown bears. In general, bears tend to den in areas unlikely to be disturbed by humans or other bear. This is due to the bear's vulnerability during hibernation. Bears are irritable or "grumpy" in early spring after emerging from their den or when disturbed during hibernation. Brown bear dens can been found at different elevations and exposures to the sun, although many brown bears choose denning locations at higher elevations. With the exception of wet or boggy areas, potential bear den locations may be found throughout the refuge.
During an area survey, potentially occupied bear dens and other wildlife habitat sites were found throughout the project area and were noted on a topographic map. A copy of this information was given to the field crews and was also forwarded to USFWS. Potential bear dens were normally bypassed, allowing a 1/8-mile zone around the den site. In this incident the bear den was located approximately half way up a 20-degree slope, approximately 325 feet from the base of the slope. The marked line was located approximately 40 feet below the den opening. During the survey, the den was not discovered.
On the day of the incident, the victim and five other members of the recording crew were flown to their assigned location. The marked line they were working on crossed over several hills. Supplies had been left approximately every ¼-mile along the line and were carried or dragged by crewmembers as they worked. At 1:45PM, the crew began work on the slope below the den. Crewmembers were spaced 10 to 100 feet apart. The victim was the fifth person to pass the den. From the den opening, a man's head and shoulders would have been visible, allowing the bear to view workers as they passed below the den. It could not be determined if there were bear tracks in the area prior to the attack. The last worker proceeding down the line (the witness) was walking approximately 10 feet behind the victim. The witness said the bear charged the victim without provocation, seized the victim's head and upper torso, and carried him 10 feet down slope. Hearing the witness call "Bear, bear", crewmembers ran or were able to climb nearby trees. The bear stayed with the victim for 1 to 2 minutes before walking to a tree occupied by one of the victim's co-workers. The bear stood and attempted to paw the co-worker's foot. As the bear walked from the site, the remaining crewmembers radioed the base camp for assistance. The camp emergency medical technician was dispatched, arriving at the site at 2:05 PM. CPR was not initiated. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.
CAUSE OF DEATH
The medical examiner's report listed the cause of death as massive head trauma due to a bear mauling.
Recommendation #1: Employers should ensure that workers receive training prior to starting field work to recognize bear den habitat and react appropriately to animal encounters; additional training should be provided as needed to supplement techniques and knowledge.
Discussion: Because this survey project was done during the winter, the employer provided limited training in bear awareness and encounter safety. While bears are more visible and active during warmer seasons, they can remain active during December and January. A hibernating bear can be aroused and may leave its den for short periods. Workers must have a good understanding of their environment in order to be safe. All workers should receive training on potential animal encounters prior to starting field work. Training should cover tracks or other animal signs, avoidance strategies, and possible protective positions. Employees should be required to demonstrate that they know what to do and should be evaluated to make sure they understand what was taught. Information and training resources include, but are not limited to, the USFWS, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Center for Wildlife Information, and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Recommendation #2: Employers should schedule daily flights over survey and recording lines prior to the deployment of crews to assess site conditions.
Discussion: Conducting daily flights over intended work sites by a competent person will help locate animal movement and other potential hazards that could effect the safety and health of the field crews. In addition, scheduled and unscheduled inspections of crew activities will help assess the workers' skills and knowledge while performing duties in the field and demonstrate that the employer is committed to employee safety.
Recommendation #3: Employers should consider having a person with wilderness training and experience on each crew to evaluate habitat for potential den sites and assist crewmembers in field safety issues.
Discussion: Wilderness experience and training may vary greatly among individuals working in remote areas. The hazards associated with these areas such as bear and moose encounters can present unique challenges to inexperienced workers. A bear or moose may exhibit "fight or flight" behavior if it is surprised, threatened, or trapped. By having an experienced outdoors person on each field crew, employers could reduce the risk of injury and promote a better understanding of the climate, physical surroundings, and animal habitat.
Recommendation #4: Employers should consider providing animal deterrents such as pepper spray or air horns and training in their proper use and storage to all personnel that perform duties in remote areas
Discussion: While the company in this incident did not allow employees to carry guns while working in remote areas, employers should consider other means of deterring an animal attack or charge. Air horns and pepper spray may be effective. Pepper spray has halted bear and moose attacks, allowing time for people to retreat. Features that should be considered when purchasing pepper spray include the concentration of oleoresin capsicum (red pepper), rating (scoville heat units/net grams or SHU/net grams), volume dispensed, number of uses, spray pattern, and neutralizers. Sprays are available with up to 2,000,000 SHU. Canisters can be placed in hip or chest holster for easy access. All personnel issued pepper spray should receiving training on its use, storage, and first aid. In addition, aircraft-approved, sealed carriers are available for air transport of the canisters to field locations.
Herrero S. Bear attacks -- their causes and avoidance. Lyon and Burford, New York. 1985.
Staples III W. "Description of two brown bear dens and circumstances of brown bear caused fatality." Field Report. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. 1 July 98.
United States Fish & Wildlife Service. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Feb. 9, 1998) http://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/. 2 March 1998.
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