Yellowstone National Park will permit kayak outfitter OARS West to operate in the park again this summer, a year after one of its guides drowned.
Yellowstone has approved OARS West’s permit to guide visitors on kayak-paddling tours on Yellowstone Lake, park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said last week. The Wyoming Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited the company for eight safety violations following the death last summer of 23-year-old, first-year guide Timothy Conant — including failures to train staff in rescue techniques and to provide adequate safety equipment. Conant died June 14, 2017 while helping rescue an OARS client 25 yards from shore near West Thumb Geyser Basin.
“Their permit has been approved,” Warthin told WyoFile. Workers in Yellowstone’s concessions management office, which approves the commercial use application for such guide services, “have looked at the OARS permit very closely and continue to do that,” she said. Officials in the office “want to do what they can do to prevent this in the future.”
OARS general manager Tyler Wendt wrote in an email to WyoFile that the company has changed its practices following Conant’s death. “The loss of our guide Tim Conant last summer during a shoreline paddle in Yellowstone Lake’s West Thumb has instigated substantial changes to our approach in outfitting this trip,” Wendt wrote. “We have been wrestling with an adequate operational response since the day it happened and aim to do everything we can to prevent a re-occurrence.”
OARS launches its summer season as Wyoming OSHA finalizes a settlement with the company over eight safety violations stemming from Conant’s death. The agency is reducing proposed penalties by $18,086, nearly 47 percent, from $38,672 to $20,586. Such reductions are common when employers remedy shortcomings. One violation is being deleted in a settlement yet to be finalized.
The agency awaits several documents from OARS before closing the case, a spokeswoman said. It found serious deficiencies in OARS’ Yellowstone operations.
“The guides were not trained in self or buddy rescue techniques for kayaks,” OSHA said in a “fatal alert” notice it issued before proposing the penalties last year. “The guides were using everyday clothing for extremity protection” and “were not familiar with the [company’s] emergency response procedures.”
OARS says it has made changes
Rangers pronounced Conant dead on the docks of Grant Village Marina where the Yellowstone ranger rescue boat “Eagle” brought him after plucking him from the wind-raked lake after drifting a quarter mile from shore. The cause of death was drowning, with hypothermia listed as a contributing factor. Forty-one persons have died in Yellowstone Lake since 1894.
Conant was one of three guides on the water the afternoon of the half-day tour. During the trip, a client fell out of his boat at about 4:30 in the afternoon when winds were recorded nearby at up to 21 mph. Conant went to help rescue him along with the two other guides. But while helping, “the guest … grabbed Tim’s kayak and water spilled in,” a fellow guide wrote in a statement to park investigators.
A few seconds later, Conant also went into the water. He was unable to get back in his boat and could only cling to the overturned craft. The water temperature was between 38 and 40 degrees, according to a park investigation.
As fellow guides struggled to get the client to shore, winds pushed Conant farther out into the lake. When the guides finally returned to help their colleague, Conant became unresponsive.
Wendt outlined several measures he says the widely known company, headquartered in Angels Camp, California, will take to improve safety for guides and clients on Yellowstone Lake.
OARS will now supply “additional thermal protection” for guides and guests, Wendt said in an email to WyoFile.
OARS also will inspect and document inspection of guides’ personal protective equipment — including things like life vests and clothing. Under federal law employers are responsible for providing workers with protective gear or inspecting such gear when employees provide their own. OSHA also wants employers to document such inspections.
The company will be “doubling down on our training program,” Wendt said, and will document those exercises as well. In investigating the incident, park rangers and OSHA examined guide training, or a lack thereof.
“The guides were not trained in self or buddy rescue techniques for kayaks,” OSHA wrote in the “fatal alert” notice. One ranger questioning a guide after the incident discovered neither she nor the clients had received training in how to get back into a boat, how to use a “paddle float” to re-enter a kayak, or how to help somebody else back into a boat.
The client who tipped over told investigators water had begun to slosh into the open cockpit of his boat. OARS’ Wendt said guides in touring kayaks now will wear spray skirts, a stretch-fabric garment that seals the touring kayak cockpit from splashing water. Neither Conant nor members of the party he was with used spray skirts on the fatal trip.
Finally, the trailing or “sweep” guide will paddle a tandem inflatable kayak “in order to provide a more stable rescue platform in the event of a capsize,” Wendt wrote.
Park opened dialog with OSHA, outfitters
OSHA’s investigation into the guide’s death and its coverage “really prompted some thoughtful discussion in the park with concessions,” Yellowstone’s Warthin said. The concessions management chief “reached out to Wyoming OSHA to better understand what the ‘alert’ was.”
As a result, OSHA sent representatives to two commercial-use training sessions earlier this year, one involving 200 attendees, the other attended by 300 persons, Warthin said.”
“That was a positive step forward,” she said.
The concessions office also had several conversations with OARS “about lessons learned,” Warthin said, and OSHA joined one of those calls. OSHA also participated in a broader telephone conversation with other kayak outfitters, she said. Among the topics discussed were communications. They fell apart during Conant’s drowning, when other guides were barely able to reach a ranger by cell phone.
A broader question the park hopes to address is what industry standards exist for open-water kayak guides and whether any should be required for prospective Yellowstone guides. Today, Yellowstone kayak guides are required only to prove they have CPR and First Aid training. Conant “had met all of Yellowstone National Park’s requirements,” Warthin said earlier this year.
The concessions office undertook a close review of OARS and their operating plan this year, she said last week. The next commitment from the concessions office is to this fall see whether such plans need to be improved.
“Both parties are looking at how they do business — especially Yellowstone,” Warthin said.
Because the case is not closed, OSHA officials could not comment on its pending outcome. But Jason Wolfe, an administrator at OSHA’s parent Department of Workforce Services, said the new routines OARS told WyoFile it would undertake sound encouraging.
“I’m happy to hear they made some relevant changes to their practices,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “Future employees will be safer as a result of this unfortunate accident.”
Agency spokeswoman Hayley McKee expressed condolences to Conant’s family. “It’s never an easy thing for us to hear,” she said of notice of a worker’s death.
OSHA and Workforce Services are ready to assist employers to understand what hazards may be present at a worksite, she said. “It’s always the owner’s responsibility to follow the law and provide a safe workplace,” she said. “We want folks to feel safe at work. We want to support businesses making the workplace safer.”
If workers feel unsafe, “please call OSHA,” she said. The agency ensures support for whistleblowers, McKee said.
Five recreational worker deaths in a decade
Conant’s death was the fifth employee fatality in the outdoor industry in Yellowstone, the Teton Mountains and nearby Forest Service wilderness in the last nine years.
Exum Mountain Guides guide Gary Faulk, 42, died in a fall from the Grand Teton in 2016. Park rangers determined a knot he used on an anchor sling had come untied. The guide service paid a $7,350 penalty, principally for not documenting the inspection of personal protective gear.
In 2014, a bear or bears killed and ate Adam Stewart while he was surveying vegetation in the Teton Wilderness, a place thick with grizzly bears. He was working for Nature’s Capital, an Idaho company under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Searchers found no bear pepper spray among his personal effects.
The private company paid $13,120 in penalties. Yellowstone area grizzly bear officials subsequently changed their recommendations for safe travel in grizzly country, increasing the minimum group size from two to three.
In 2010 OSHA investigated the workplace fatality of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski patroller Mark Wolling, but levied no fine in his death. He died after being buried in a snowslide during morning avalanche reduction operations.
In 2009 OSHA investigated the death of ski patroller Kathryn Miller, also at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. She fell while skiing an out-of-bounds couloir and died after hitting her head.
She was not wearing a helmet. As a result of an “informal settlement” with OSHA, the resort began requiring ski patrollers to wear helmets in some instances. The company subsequently expanded that requirement and today patrollers wear helmets routinely.
At OARS, Wendt said guides have been working for weeks to learn paddling and rescue techniques. “Our crew has been training hard this spring, with people out on the water essentially every day since May 15th,” he wrote.
Workforce services’ McKee said a single inspection, change in practices or new piece of gear guarantees little. As far as safety, “It’s an everyday vigilance kind of deal.”