This teen was poisoned by carbon monoxide on the job. His parents say the employer got off easy

At left, Wil Krotenko is seen on Aug. 1, 2023, his first day on the job at the Co-op grocery store in Canora, Sask. At right, he is seen a few months later after being airlifted to an Edmonton hospital with a severe case of carbon monoxide poisoning that happened at work. (Submitted by Kelly Krotenko - image credit)
At left, Wil Krotenko is seen on Aug. 1, 2023, his first day on the job at the Co-op grocery store in Canora, Sask. At right, he is seen a few months later after being airlifted to an Edmonton hospital with a severe case of carbon monoxide poisoning that happened at work. (Submitted by Kelly Krotenko - image credit)

When Wil Krotenko got his first part time job in the meat department of the local Co-op grocery store last summer, the then 14-year-old couldn't wait to start making his own money — never imagining the job could kill him a few months later.

The teen, who lives in Canora, Sask., about 235 kilometres northeast of Regina, says he started feeling sick soon after starting his shift on Oct. 23 when his manager tasked him with cleaning enclosed areas of the meat department with a gas-powered pressure washer.

"I started feeling lightheaded and dizzy," Wil told Go Public. He says he staggered to the front of the store. "And I guess that's when I collapsed."

His condition was so serious that Wil had to be airlifted to Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton with severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

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His mom says he spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber, used in the most serious poisoning cases, so the high levels of carbon monoxide in his blood could be replaced with oxygen.

Adam Bent/CBC
Adam Bent/CBC

"He was basically at death's door," said Wil's father, Kurt Krotenko. "If he would have passed out in that meat department alone with the pressure washer on.… He could have been dead right there."

Lack of severe consequences

According to the Occupational Health and Safety report, carbon monoxide levels in the confined space where Wil was working were up to 60 times higher than what's considered safe over an eight hour period under Saskatchewan's occupational health regulations.

Despite all of that, the employer faced no consequences, aside from being told to fix the problems.

The lack of severe consequences for employers who put workers like Wil in danger is a longstanding problem in Canada, according to a workplace safety expert.

WATCH | This teen was poisoned at work and his employer received no penalty:

Sean Tucker, a professor of occupational health and safety at the University of Regina says that's because many provinces don't have the ability to issue hefty fines directly to workplaces that put employees in harm's way.

Instead, they can only order employers to fix violations — with no fines — or they can try to pursue large fines in court, which is costly and can take years, he said.

"We need other tools. We need administrative penalties. So for serious incidents like this where for whatever reason, there isn't going to be a prosecution, there can be a significant financial penalty," Tucker said.

There are minor fines that can be issued in some provinces without court action, called summary offence ticketing, but those don't apply in Wil's case, according to Tucker.

Co-op is a big player in the grocery store market with more than 240 locations mostly all over Western Canada, according to the organization's website.

The Gateway location did not answer Go Public's specific questions.

Adam Bent/CBC
Adam Bent/CBC

In an email statement to Go Public, Gateway Co-op said, "the incident was caused by an unauthorized piece of equipment being brought into one of our facilities by a then Gateway Co-op employee."

The statement went on to say that what happened was "a terrible incident that had the potential to be worse," and that the store resolves to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Texts show supervisor knew equipment was unsafe

Just the day before Wil was poisoned, another teen employee went home sick after using the gas pressure washer.

A supervisor was aware of that, according to text messages between that supervisor and the employee that were provided to Go Public.

Name withheld
Name withheld

Gateway Co-op didn't answer Go Public's questions about what the supervisor knew.

Both teens were unsupervised and received no training on how to use the equipment, according to their families and the workplace safety report.

That report said Co-op broke four Occupational Health and Safety Regulations: failing to provide worker health and safety training, failure to provide adequate supervision, allowing employees under the age of 16 to work in a hazardous space, and exposing young workers to dangerous chemicals or substances.

Co-op was ordered to get into compliance with the rules it had broken within 11 weeks but faced no fines or other repercussions.

"My son was almost killed on the job, and [Occupational Health and Safety] only gave four contraventions to the Co-op and no fines. I find that ridiculous," said Kurt Krotenko.

Young workers more vulnerable

Tucker, the workplace safety expert, says young workers are more vulnerable to workplace injury because they're eager to please and reluctant to speak up about concerns.

"This one is certainly egregious," Tucker said. "No training, no supervision. You've got a 14 year old doing work that, legally, they're not supposed to be doing… so many problems here."

What's needed, says Tucker, are Administrative Monetary Penalties (AMPs) — severe fines that fill the gap between written orders to fix problems and court prosecution.

AMPs provide significant fines without going to court. Some provinces have them, but many don't — including Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and several other jurisdictions.

The labour ministry told Go Public it has no plans to implement AMPs.

Submitted by Kelly Krotenko
Submitted by Kelly Krotenko

Tucker says charges under Saskatchewan's occupational health and safety law should be considered in Wil's case, especially since another young employee got sick after using the gas pressure washer a day earlier.

But that would require Saskatchewan's Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety to pursue charges through the Ministry of Justice.

The Ministry tells Go Public it's not doing that, at least for now.

"However, charges can be filed any time within two years from the date of the incident if new or additional evidence warrants it," a spokesperson for the ministry told Go Public in an email.

Gateway Co-op says it has co-operated and complied with all of the health and safety requirements made after the incident.

WATCH | Is your teen safe at work?

Teen could suffer long-term health problems

Wil and his parents say he hasn't been the same since he was poisoned at work. They say he gets cluster headaches, which are severely painful, especially around the eyes.

"It's really hard to focus when I have headaches," Wil said. "I think that's why my grades, like, have declined."

Carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to long-term neurological, cognitive, physical and emotional problems according to Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and an emergency physician.

Go Public provided Francescutti with Wil's medical records so he could review the case.

"He's going to need support," the doctor told Go Public.

Kory Siegers/CBC
Kory Siegers/CBC

"He's going to need to be monitored very carefully, especially his heart function and his pulmonary function and his neurobehavioural function as well. So he's not out of the woods yet."

The Krotenko family says they contacted Go Public so they could warn other families about safety risks young people could face at work and advocate for more severe consequences for companies that fail to keep workers safe.

Now, they want to focus on Wil's medical appointments and monitoring his health.

Gateway Co-op says it has offered the Krotenko family support and access to employee programs.

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