B.C. forest companies face new, prescriptive regulations that define how much sawdust can settle in a wood-products plant before it is considered a hazard, almost two years after the deaths of four workers in sawmill explosions.
The new regime has been rolled out in the midst of a safety crackdown by WorkSafeBC inspectors on B.C. sawmills.
Sawdust has been identified as the key fuel that fed a massive fireball that flattened the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake in January, 2012, leaving two workers dead and another 20 seriously injured.
A report on the April, 2012, explosion at the Lakeland Mills plant in Prince George has not yet been made public, but that mill was also processing the super-dry, pine beetle-killed timber that was a major source of dust at Babine.
Two workers died in that second explosion.
“This is just a different dust,” said James Gorman, president of the Council of Forest Industries, in an interview Monday. The mountain pine beetle epidemic has led to a race in B.C. Interior mills to process dead and dying wood before it loses its merchantable value.
Mr. Gorman said the new regulations from WorkSafeBC were shaped by industry-led safety reforms, and will be backstopped by a voluntary audit system that begins this month in a majority of Interior sawmills to ensure safety measures are being implemented.
The new regulations introduced in December set out for the first time what that risk looks like, according to a statement from WorkSafeBC: “Fine wood dusts that are broadly dispersed and that settle away from the area where they are produced … Where these are present at 1/8 inch [0.3 cm] over five per cent of a work area, they present a hazard.”
In a report released last week by WorkSafeBC, workers at the Babine mill reported “horrendous” sawdust piles more than a metre high, with dust in the air so thick that they couldn’t see across the mill at times.
The worker safety agency has assembled a team of 10 inspectors who have been visiting each of the province’s 146 sawmills in recent weeks as part of a combustible dust safety review. So far they have issued 86 violation notices and imposed “stop work” orders in 12 instances.
“It tells you this is very much an ongoing process,” Mr. Gorman said when asked about the safety violations. “Nobody is prepared to cut corners on safety. This is this industry’s top priority.”
The explosion at Babine stunned the forestry sector, but when the Lakeland Mills plant exploded, CEOs representing the majority of the Interior forestry industry launched their own safety review team, the manufacturers’ advisory group, to look at sawdust hazards.
Mr. Gorman said mill owners have invested millions of dollars in safety improvements since the Babine explosion, such as improved ventilation and additional water mist systems.
“The most important thing that came out of it was the development of an industrywide, audit-able standard so there is an independent assurance of mill safety,” he said. The audits include an on-site review of each facility’s equipment and systems to look at wood dust and possible ignition sources. Members of the manufacturers’ advisory group – which represents about 70 per cent of B.C.’s lumber production – have signed on to an agreement to begin the audits this month.
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