WorkSafeBC’s report into the Burns Lake sawmill explosion that killed two people and left 20 others injured is not pleasant reading. What is abundantly apparent by the time you reach the end is that the mill was a bomb just waiting to go off. The only question was who would be the unlucky workers on shift when it did.
It’s a wonder the place didn’t explode into flames long before Jan. 20, 2012, such were the abhorrent working conditions at the plant.
Observations provided by mill employees interviewed by WorkSafeBC investigators are especially disturbing to digest.
They talk about the mass buildups of dust that, in some instances, loomed over their heads.
The air quality was so bad workers often couldn’t see across the mill floor.
“There were mountains of broken debris and sawdust everywhere,” said one. The basement, apparently, was even worse than the main floor area. “The [sawdust buildup was] everywhere; on beams, handrails, stairs, the floor even,” offered another employee.
And then there is this eerie assessment by investigators of how only fate prevented catastrophe from striking the mill earlier. They found that a handful of variables – components such as an ignition source, oxygen, fuel – needed to be present to create the perfect storm that produced the blast.
“It is likely that the hazardous situation had arisen at the sawmill many times previously, perhaps in many areas of the sawmill, without incident because one or more of these five components were absent,” the report said. “On the day of the incident, however, all components were present and the explosion occurred.”
These are the types of conditions we’re used to reading about in emerging countries. But in British Columbia? One of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world? How is this possible?
That is something we still don’t know, along with a host of other questions. Given the apparent evidence of dereliction by the mill owner, it seems unfathomable that someone is not going to be charged out of this tragedy. Two people lost their lives, with all the attendant collateral damage that entails. Twenty other people who were injured, some severely, had their lives impacted in a major way too.
And all that is going to happen is the mill owners get a fine? I don’t think so.
Premier Christy Clark announced on Thursday that she has asked her deputy, John Dyble, to conduct a review of the WorkSafeBC investigation. As well, Mr. Dyble will look at the Crown’s decision not to lay charges on the grounds some of the evidence collected by WorkSafeBC likely would have been found inadmissible.
Mr. Dyble is not a perfect choice. An independent arbitrator, and not someone linked to government, would have been better. A person with a legal background who could navigate the sometimes tricky world of criminal prosecution would have been the best option because of the questions that surround the Crown’s decision.
WorkSafeBC has been using the same investigative techniques on job sites for decades. The case law cited by the Crown in announcing its verdict is at least 10 years old. In 31 cases between 1996 and 2010, when the Crown approved charges related to evidence uncovered by WorkSafeBC investigators, the issue of Charter considerations was never raised, according to WorkSafeBC. Twenty-four of those cases ended up successful prosecutions.
Something constructive needs to come from all this, and if it’s new guidelines around WorkSafeBC investigations then that’s a start. But that hardly seems enough, in view of what’s happened. And I can’t imagine that given the evidence of willful disregard by the mill operators that the families of the two dead men won’t sue. Maybe others, too.
The report makes clear there was inadequate supervision of cleanup and maintenance staff. In fact, dust buildup had been the source of an occupational health and safety violation just a month before the deadly blast. As the investigation concludes: This was a disaster that could have been avoided.
Besides the fresh pain it must have stirred, WorkSafeBC’s report surely made the victims’ families angry all over again. Just imagining the woeful environment their loved ones had to enter each day in the name of making a living would be gut-wrenching.
The fact that we have yet to hear from the mill owners, Hampton Affliliates out of Portland, Ore., is unconscionable. The company has a lot for which to answer for and the sooner it begins talking the better.