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September 13, 2012

BC Sawmill Dangers: Hold Governments to Account for Refusing to Provide Workers' Health and Safety with a Guarantee

by Charles Boylan

Burns Lake

Who must be held to account for the Babine Lake and Lakeland sawmill explosions, deaths, injuries, loss of livelihoods and damage to the local economies?

The two massive explosions and fires first at Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake on January 20 and then Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George on April 23 killed four workers and injured 38, seven of whom remain in hospital. The explosions destroyed the livelihoods of over 450 mill workers and an uncounted number of jobs for loggers, truck drivers and mill subcontractors, all of which is a huge blow to the local economies. There is no indication the mills will be rebuilt.

Significant questions emerge:

What caused the explosions?

Were the causes known beforehand?

Were preventative measures deliberately not taken?

Who must be held to account for the deaths, injuries, loss of livelihoods and blow to the local economies?

The immediate discourse of company officials, the Workers' Compensation Board (now Worksafe BC), Minister of Labour and others in the industry were that these explosions were unique, unknown before in the history of BC sawmilling.

The first tragic explosion in Burns Lake was attributed to a "perfect storm" of many factors unlikely to recur. The second explosion just three months later in Prince George raised more seriously the matter of dust accumulation in the mills. The Minister of Labour, Margaret MacDairmid, ordered on April 25 that all mill owners in the province bring dust levels "up to current standards." However, a review of Worksafe BC Regulations shows that "current standards" have nothing specific to say about the danger of sawdust accumulation in sawmills. Section 9.9.2 (b) has a general reference to a "hazard assessment" having to take "combustible dust" into account.

The Globe and Mail reports that Worksafe BC on April 27, 2010 issued a series of warnings about the danger of dust explosions. The warnings include specific description about how a primary explosion can set off an even more deadly explosion by shaking loose more sawdust. The Globe writes, "The document offers advice on dust-collection devices, as well as a reminder of BC Fire Code regulations on their use. It urges operators to assess their facilities, provide written dust- control programs for staff and train staff. 'The dust-control program should be communicated to all workers and include training on the program elements, including hazard awareness, specific safe work procedures, hazcom documentation and emergency preparedness.'"1

The talk from officialdom about the Burns Lake and Prince George explosions being unique or a "perfect storm" is further debunked in another recent article. Reporter Gordon Hoekstra documents the following explosions, which ought to have put every mill owner on notice that their mills were potential explosion sites:
  1. an explosion in January 2011 at Tolko's Soda Cree sawmill in Williams Lake caused by dust creating a fire in the walls difficult to extinguish;
  2. an explosion in April 2011 in Pinnacle Pellet’s plant in Armstrong causing a fire;
  3. an explosion in Pinnacle Pellet’s Williams Lake plant in August 2009 caused by dust mixed with air and set off with a spark;
  4. an explosion at Pacific Bioenergy's pellet plant in Prince George in December 2010 where dust ignited by a spark was cited as cause;
  5. another explosion at that plant in March 2008.
In addition to these five foretelling explosions, a small explosion took place at the Burns Lake Babine Forest Products mill in February 2011, eleven months before the entire mill was destroyed in the horrific explosion. The article cites a BC Safety Authority report saying unusually dry sawdust was the cause of that 2011 incident. Another case cited was "an explosion linked to dust at Canfor's Chetwynd sawmill in 2005 where work on a shutdown burner created a cloud of dust that was ignited by cutting torches. At least one worker was injured and taken to hospital."2

This information recently revealed to the public means that those responsible for safety oversight in the mills did nothing about these warnings. Primarily responsible are the mill owners and Worksafe BC. They have the fiduciary responsibility to ensure workers attend a safe work site. They failed to do so and did not do so having ample warning that the accumulation of sawmill dust is explosive. In short, they allowed workers to enter work sites knowing the danger of explosions was real.

The mill owners themselves blurt out their pragmatic bottom line priorities. When asked directly about what they did to prevent an explosion, Greg Stewart the president of Sinclair Forest Group, owner of Lakeland, is quoted saying, "We did ramp up our housekeeping crew.... We were in the process of investigating a vacuum system to install in the mill.... You're not going to install a system like a vacuum system overnight."3

The question workers have a right to ask is "why not?" Sufficient evidence points at the failure to do so cost two workers their lives, injured 13 others, some severely, and destroyed the Prince George mill. There were plenty of precedent explosions and a warning by Worksafe BC in 2010. Yet Stewart expresses a reluctance to "install a ... vacuum system overnight" even though there was no "overnight" emergency -- it was developing for months. In short, the owners have a clearly stated reluctance to invest in possibly expensive but essential dust removal systems to protect the workers' lives, limbs and worksites despite knowing the dangers which exist. Four major sawmills in BC have burned to the ground in less than four years; not one has been rebuilt. This not only speaks to an even larger overall crisis facing the wood industry in BC but to definite negligence on the part of owners.

The criminal law says if an employer sends workers to a work place where there is clear and apparent danger to their lives, and a life is lost, it is a criminal offensive punishable by time in jail. Would the workers at Burns Lake and Prince George not be justified to demand these wealthy mill owners be so charged?

There is another factor and player responsible, namely, the third party companies hired by mill owners to look after "risk assessment" and safety as well as relations with Worksafe BC. Part of the neoliberal corporate agenda is to privatize government agencies set up to monitor the owners of capital, whether to protect the public from food poisoning or protect work sites from hazardous conditions. In northern BC, many owners of heavy industry have outsourced this responsibility to a company called International Quest Engineering (IQE) in Prince George. The company's services include "Health, Safety and Environment Policy (HSE)."4

IQE boasts they, "Always strive to lead by example and promote a pro-active safety-first culture." According to their website, they "Plan our jobs to eliminate any risk to manpower, equipment and the environment and maintain the highest possible standard of accident prevention measures at all times." Among their clients, they list several major wood and mining monopolies including Hampton (Babine Forest Products) in Burns Lake, and Lakeland in Prince George.5

Some important questions need to be asked. Did IQE have a contract to oversee safety in these two mills? If the answer is yes - were they aware of the April 27, 2010 warning of Worksafe BC? Were they aware of the five preceding explosions in BC sawmills? Did they instruct their clients to take urgent engineering precautions in the plants to prevent the catastrophic explosions that occurred? If they monitored safety conditions, did they notify Worksafe BC of the dust hazard?

Neil McManus, a consulting industrial hygienist at NorthWest Occupational Health & Safety makes the following important point about the role of an engineering company like IQE: "Engineering and safety are intimately related. Safety -- being the condition such that nobody will suffer accident injury or death at work -- is an outcome from good engineering. Engineering responds to safety issues through redesign and installation of structures to prevent harm to people."6

McManus, well respected in his field and author of a book about the use of portable dust filters, says there is no doubt in his mind that wood dust is the cause of the two major mill explosions. In his interview, he cited Brazil as a country where safety measures include companies having to take on one or more of "a safety technician, a safety engineer, a nurse and/or an occupational health physician" should risk assessment merit it. There is no such requirement in BC.

Another spokesperson familiar with the role of Worksafe BC as an agency totally at the service of the monopolies told TML, "Blaming the explosions on pine beetle logs is like asking how explosive is the gun powder?" Darrell Powell, injured shipyard worker and workers' safety advocate told TML that dust flash fires and explosions are well-known but the wood industry monopolies don't want to finance sufficient air cleaning apparatus to ensure the mills don't explode.

Sucha Deepak, retired business agent for USW Local 1-424 in Prince George told TML the change in name of Workers' Compensation Board to Worksafe was deliberate to put the onus for safety onto the workers. "The companies are responsible for safety. They must be held to account for these two major tragedies, the deaths and injuries. 'Worksafe' should properly be renamed 'Safework' to put the onus where it belongs, on the corporate owners," he said.

Sam Tom, union plant chairman of the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake told TML another factor leading to the explosion was the undermining of workers' health and safety conditions caused by the shift changes dictated by the mill owners some years back. The companies went from an eight-hour workday five days a week to a 10-hour day seven days a week schedule. "The dust really accumulated after that because before that, weekends were used for clean up and serious mill maintenance. Now that doesn't happen, workers are exhausted and dangers keep mounting," he said.

A further factor Sam Tom cited was the change of the width of the steel saw blades. "By making them with finer steel they get more lumber from the logs. But those thin blades also make finer dust, just like flour."

He told TML that workers like him now have to meet mortgage payments without employment. He said some workers found jobs in the Houston mill, but it is a one-and-a-half hour commute each way. Others went to Alberta, but some have since come back because of the bad working conditions there. Only half of the workers have picked up new jobs. The community is traumatized, and the government has done nothing for the families, not even expedite their EI claims which they promised, Tom concluded.

The BC government is fully responsible for its safety regulation agency Worksafe BC and it is fully responsible for what the mill owners do in BC. It is altogether wrong to suggest it shares responsibility with the mill owners because the former is a public authority responsible to the people of British Columbia and the latter are private interests responsible to their shareholders. The private interests will act to take whatever shortcuts they can get away with, which is precisely why the government must uphold public right and not monopoly right. WorkSafe BC issued a general warning in April 2010, but never imposed any specific regulations or orders on the owners. Why not? If Worksafe BC were serious about making sure the workplaces are safe, it is not hard to do what is needed. Despite this, to date no "shutdown" orders have been issued which must include full pay for all workers during the shutdown.

The government brags about its "job creation" initiatives but has done nothing to ensure sawmill jobs are safe. Premier Christy Clark flying off to Burns Lake and then Prince George to assure the communities that the "hearts and prayers" of British Columbians are with them does not make up for her government's irresponsibility for not overseeing safety in BC sawmills. Government workplace safety oversight in the interest of the public good is a key function of government. Without it, under the guise that corporations can oversee their own safety requirements, only the private interests of the mill owners have political clout. That is exactly the situation in Worksafe BC. It never conducts unannounced work site inspections, never keeps the private interests in check, but harasses injured workers on compensation into a living hell. Worksafe's main concern is ensuring massive "rebates" to companies for keeping their compensation payments low. Every dictate of the monopolies comes before the safety requirements of workers.

The mill owners must be held responsible by the BC government for the tragedies that occurred on January 20 and April 23 and the government's gross indifference and irresponsibility must be denounced. Workers need their collective organization and social consciousness to get the mills shut down with full pay until they are safe, the damage repaired and their livelihoods and local economies are restored.

  1. "Two years before deadly explosions, warnings went out about sawdust danger," by Sunny Dhillon, Justin Hunter and Ian Baily, Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012.
  2. "Wood dust linked to at least five explosions in B.C. mills" by Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, April 28, 2012.
  3. "Two years before deadly explosions, warnings went out about sawdust danger," by Sunny Dhillon, Justin Hunter and Ian Baily, Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012.
  5. Case-Studies.php"
  6. "B.C. sawmill tragedy: How does dust explode?" Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012.