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A spokesman for the union representing B.C. mill workers says the forest industry is not doing enough to meet its safety obligations, even in the wake of two deadly sawmill explosions. (Handout)
A spokesman for the union representing B.C. mill workers says the forest industry is not doing enough to meet its safety obligations, even in the wake of two deadly sawmill explosions. (Handout)

Sawmills dropping the ball on safety, inspection blitz finds Add to ...

A safety enforcement blitz in B.C. sawmills that triggered 13 stop-work orders in just three months shows that the forest industry and its regulators are not doing enough in response to two deadly mill explosions, the top union official representing mill workers says.

“If you don’t enforce, people die,” said Steve Hunt, director for the United Steelworkers. “We still haven’t come to grips with it.”

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Safety inspectors from WorkSafeBC conducted 249 inspections this winter targeting combustible dust – a campaign that was prompted by dust-fuelled explosions that destroyed sawmills in Burns Lake and Prince George, killing four workers and injuring dozens more, early in 2012.

Despite new regulations and millions of dollars worth of safety upgrades in the past two years, inspectors found equipment “buried” in wood dust, mill sections that hadn’t seen a cleanup crew in months, and damaged ventilation systems.

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said Tuesday she will meet with company CEOs to talk about the lack of compliance, and with WorkSafeBC to discuss what repercussions those employers may face.

“There are clear expectations, clear directives around mitigating for dust,” Ms. Bond said in an interview. “Before we start adding more regulation, we have to be sure the entire industry understands the importance of being in compliance.”

In a report released Tuesday, the workplace safety watchdog found 61 of 144 mills were not in compliance with dust management rules. In 13 cases, the hazards were severe enough to force temporary shutdowns “due to unacceptable accumulations of secondary dust and other significant violations, which posed an immediate hazard to the health and safety of workers.” One company has been fined $11,000 and two others are also facing penalties.

The safety inspections were part of a campaign to enforce new regulations for controlling combustible dust. Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC’s head of prevention services, said the industry is improving safety. “Every mill now has a dust management plan in place, things are getting better. The industry understands the expectation, but in some cases they are not there yet.”

But Mr. Hunt, who wants tougher regulation of the industry, calls that a rosy interpretation. “The blitz is a marketing ploy by WorkSafe,” Mr. Hunt said in an interview. He said the province needs to set stronger rules and direction. “It’s the political will to make it happen, and that’s what is missing.”

Ms. Bond said she will meet with the union as well to talk about what more needs to be done. “These workers should be able to go to work in the morning and feel safe and come home safely at the end of the day,” she said.

She added that workers do have the right to refuse work if they believe conditions are unsafe. Mr. Hunt wants those rights broadened to make it easier for workers who are under intense pressure not to stall production. Workers from both of the mills that exploded later spoke of the significant buildup of combustible sawdust. But with mills in the interior racing to process the pine beetle-killed timber before it loses value, cleanup crews were sometimes diverted to processing just to keep the operations running.

James Gorman, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, said most of the problems found by WorkSafe inspectors were in out-of-the-way areas such as basements and rafters. “There has been a ton of progress in the primary production areas,” he said. “We need to expand our programs to include hidden and elevated areas, those areas near electrical and mechanical enclosures.”

Opposition leader Adrian Dix, who met last week with workers from the two mills that exploded, said the report underlines the need for a broad review of workplace safety in the industry. “We’ve had a haphazard response to a tragic situation. There is no accountability from the cabinet, from the Crown, from the employer, or from WorkSafeBC.”

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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