The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has paid a fine of $29,500 for state occupational safety violations surrounding the death of Conservation Officer Eugene Wynn of Pine City in April.
Wynn drowned after being thrown from a boat while he was attempting to search for a possible person in distress on Cross Lake in Pine County on April 19. Pine County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Grice also was thrown from the boat but was rescued unharmed.
The investigation determined that Wynn was not wearing a life jacket and did not have the boat motor’s kill switch attached to himself, both cited as reasons for the state Occupational Safety and Health Act violation and fine. The safety agency categorized the violations as “serious.”
The DNR’s Enforcement Division also failed to report the work-related death to the state agency within eight hours as required by law.
The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s Occupational Safety and Health Division originally imposed a $53,500 fine for the three violations. But the DNR appealed and the fines were reduced. The DNR agreed not to challenge the decision.
As part of the settlement the DNR also has agreed to update procedures to include more “compliance checks” by supervisors of conservation officers in the field to make sure they are following protocol, such as always wearing a life jacket.
The final settlement in the case was filed Feb. 5 with an administrative law judge in St. Paul and the case officially closed Feb. 14.
According to the sheriff’s report on the accident, Wynn accelerated the DNR-owned boat away from shore and then suddenly made an abrupt left turn. The turn sent Wynn and Grice into the cold water as the boat continued under power across the lake until it beached on the west side. A U.S. Coast Guard inspection of the boat “did not identify any abnormalities to the boat that would have contributed to the accident,” the sheriff’s report noted.
There were two life jackets in the boat but neither officer was wearing one. While state law only requires life jackets be readily available in the boat, DNR policy requires officers to wear them while on the water. The DNR’s life jacket regulations for employees read as follows: “Employees working over or near water, where the danger of drowning exists, or in any DNR watercraft will be provided with and will wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (life jacket), float coat, survival suit or buoyant work vest.”
“We had a fairly good policy in place and good equipment … But we what we were lacking to some extent was doing compliance checks to make sure the (officers) were complying with those policies and using the equipment,” said Lt. Col Greg Salo, assistant director of the DNR’s Enforcement Division.
To comply with the settlement Salo said the DNR came up with some “reasonable” solutions to improve safety compliance in the field — things like helmets for snowmobiling and life jackets in watercraft — such as FaceTime calls between supervisors and officers in the field to visually confirm safety compliance. The Enforcement Division already has discussed the issue with all officers at a recent staff meeting.
Wynn, 43, had been a Minnesota conservation officer since 2001. He left behind a wife, an 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. Wynn was the 22nd Minnesota conservation officer to die in the line of duty, according to the DNR.