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Sun, 06/02/2019 - 10:35

Mill workers hope formal review will clear their air of sawdust and danger

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RYAN CLAY’S WORLD EXPLODED ON JANUARY 20, 2012. That was the day the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, British Columbia blew up and burned down. Ryan worked in the mill. Two of his workmates, Glenn Roche and Robert Luggi were killed. He and 19 others were injured.

Steve Dominic, injured in Babine mill explosion, joins rally to demand a public inquiry into negligence leading to sawmill explosions

RYAN CLAY’S WORLD EXPLODED ON JANUARY 20, 2012. That was the day the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, British Columbia blew up and burned down. Ryan worked in the mill. Two of his workmates, Glenn Roche and Robert Luggi were killed. He and 19 others were injured.

Two months later it happened again. The Lakeland Mills in Prince George, BC exploded on April 23, 2012. Alan Little, 43, and Glenn roche, 46, were killed in the blast.

Two investigations into the explosions settled little. Now an official review is finally under way to answer all the questions left unanswered about the two explosions. It took seven years to get here. None of it came easy.

‘Like coming out of a war zone’

Ryan remembers what it was like to survive the Babine mill explosion. “It’s almost like you were coming out of the war zone,” he told the media. “Everything was levelled. I met one fellow, I think his fingers were blown off, and his clothing, a lot of it was gone. It was burned off and his hair too.”­­

Over two years later Ryan was still struggling: “Honestly I don’t even hardly sleep at night. If I get one or two full nights of sleep a week, then I’m lucky.”

WorkSafeBC botched the Babine mill investigation so badly that no criminal prosecutions could be brought against the mill’s owner, Hampton Affiliates. The same happened with the investigation of the Lakeland mill explosion.

Coroner’s inquests into each explosion ruled the two deaths at Babine and the single death at Lakeland to be accidental.

Nobody could be held criminally responsible for any of the deaths.

An independent review

The USW (United Steelworkers of America) and local people continued to press for more. They wanted an independent review of the whole situation: of how the mill owners escaped all responsibility and liability; and of how the provincial agency charged with making life on the job safe could have so badly failed the injured and dead workers.

BC’s Ministry of Labour recently hired Vancouver-based lawyer Lisa Helps to investigate how WorkSafeBC handled the investigations into the two explosions. She will also offer legislative recommendations aimed at preventing something similar from occurring.

Steve Hunt, district director for the USW, hopes the new inquiry will bring some overdue justice for the workers and their families. “The two biggest investigations in the Workers’ Compensation Board’s history were both botched so badly that they couldn’t prosecute either criminally or through regulation or through the Act,” states Hunt.

The way Hunt sees it the agency responsible for protecting workers’ safety showed far more concern for the sensitivities of the mill owners than the sawmill workers.

Referring to the Babine Forest Products explosion, the WorkSafeBC manager wrote: “Industry sensitivity given the recent event and limited clarity around what constitutes an explosion could lead to pushback if an enforcement strategy is pursued at this time.”

In other words: moving to enforce measures to limit the dangers from sawdust explosions would upset the mill owners.

Fireballs in the air

Workers in the mills had long been warning of the risks of an explosion from high levels of wood dust. Both mills were involved in disposing of trees killed by beetle infestations, making the dust from the wood especially fine and dry.

“The dust was described as floating in the air, clinging in the air or that it wafted,” coroner Lisa LaPoint explained during the inquest into the deaths at the Lakeland Mills.

“We also heard that while fires were not uncommon in the mill, the fires that broke out were different.”

One of those fires broke out at Lakeland just a day prior to the tragic explosion at the Burns Lake mill. The high concentration of wood dust in the air allowed sparks to ignite a fireball that burned in the air and almost reached the ceiling.

Inquiries into both incidents noted deficiencies in safety precautions and cleanup procedures.

LaPoint’s inquest found that disagreements existed at the Lakeland Mills over who was responsible for cleanup, and that workers lacked the time to properly clean the mill because of disputes over a third shift.

LaPoint added, “We also heard that while there appears to have been a significant concern among the mill’s workers, these concerns were not reflected in the minutes of safety committee meetings nor were they being reported to the union.”

Expansion more important than safety

Similar “small” fires happened at Babine Forest Products. A smaller explosion triggered a fire at the mill almost a year before the fatal explosion, An investigation into the incident by management found that high levels of wood dust was a major factor.

Inspectors cited the Babine mill in December 2011 for unsafe levels of wood dust in the air. Nothing was done. Instead, focus stayed on expanding the mill’s production capacity. The mill exploded less than 60 days later.

A November 2017 WorkSafeBC ruling confirmed a decision to fine Hampton Affiliates over $1 million for the explosion at the Babine mill.

WorkSafeBC review officer Melina Lorenz wrote: “The employer failed to take effective steps to correct known combustible dust and electrical hazards that had previously resulted in a dust explosion and significant fire.”

Never again

Helps’ review is due in mid July. Hunt hopes it will lead to legislative change, tighter regulations by WorkSafeBC, and criminal prosecutions for negligence of those responsible for safety measures at both mill owners.

“The best I can hope for out of this is we don’t do a repeat ever in any industry, and we make an adjustment that makes a societal change,” says Hunt.“This one screams for that.

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