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Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)
Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)

Justine Hunter

Report raises doubts about WorkSafeBC’s ability to protect workers Add to ...

John Dyble’s report on the Babine mill explosion provides no solace for the families of the victims, nor does it give comfort to those who work in high-risk occupations in B.C.

His report, released last week by Premier Christy Clark, concluded that one government agency should have listened to another government department about the proper conduct of investigations. The government has pledged to follow through with better training and improved communication between agencies next time around.

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Useful as that is, it papers over the structural problems in workplace safety that this case has exposed.

Mr. Dyble, the head of the B.C. civil service, scolded WorkSafeBC for failing to heed the advice from the criminal justice branch about the legal requirements for carrying out the complex and lengthy investigation. He revealed that the two agencies had been at odds for years on the matter – in fact the disagreement may have similarly messed up a prosecution over three deaths at a mushroom farm in Langley, but because the defendants pleaded guilty, we’ll never know.

His report casts a shadow over WorkSafeBC’s ability to investigate death and serious injuries.

But the larger part of WorkSafeBC’s mandate is to prevent accidents. And Mr. Dyble’s narrow focus did not consider whether the agency tasked with ensuring workplace safety should have done more before the catastrophic explosion. It also did not consider whether the results-based regulatory environment – where companies are supposed to take responsibility for safety – is working. And it leaves untouched the question of whether it is appropriate for enforcement and investigations to be housed under a single roof.

The Babine mill exploded because of a hazardous buildup of combustible dust. Prevention officers from WorkSafeBC did go into the mill weeks before it exploded. They observed the excessive sawdust levels, but only flagged it as an air-quality issue. When the agency later concluded that the deaths were preventable, it blamed Babine’s owners for not detecting the risk that its own officers had not identified.

WorkSafeBC officials also visited the A-1 Mushroom farm before the deadly 2008 incident in a pump house where the air had filled with hydrogen sulphide. But they did not conduct a formal inspection of the facility, despite a litany of violations of safety regulations. A coroner’s inquest into the deaths of the three farm workers found that the operation was “designed to fail” and that the owners had demonstrated a disregard for the health and safety of their workers.

Last week, the Premier ruled out a public inquiry into the Babine explosion. Her government appears to be reluctant to turn over too many rocks right now, in part because WorkSafeBC still has to deliver a report to the criminal justice branch this month on a second explosion that killed two workers at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George. As well, the agency is still looking at imposing a financial penalty against Babine Forest Products.

In a statement Friday, the minister responsible for WorkSafeBC, Shirley Bond, said the priority is to address the recommendations in the Dyble report. The agency has been ordered to come back with answers to identify the “underlying issues, processes or people that were responsible for the outcomes around the Babine investigation.”

But Ms. Bond left the door open to changes that go beyond that. Len Doust has been appointed to ensure that the Dyble recommendations are implemented, but he also has the power to recommend additional action to government.

The government has, to date, brushed off a proposal from the B.C. Federation of Labour that police should be brought in to investigate any incident in which a worker is severely injured or killed. As the government examines how the system failed here, there is an opportunity to reconsider.

If employers are to be held accountable for unsafe working conditions, the province can’t afford to let cases like the one at Babine fall apart. The Premier said last week she is deeply disappointed in WorkSafeBC. If there is any genuine will to take a hard look at the agency, her government should widen its scope and look at whether the current system is protecting workers.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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