Skip to main content

Smoke rises as police tape surrounds Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The agency responsible for workplace safety in B.C. is doubling the strength of its sawmill inspection team, one of a series of measures announced Monday in response to a pair of deadly mill explosions two years ago.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond announced what she called a 90-day action plan after an "unprecedented" meeting of labour, industry and government around sawmill safety.

A number of the proposed initiatives are still being studied, however, and none will address the concerns of the families involved in those blasts around the failure to hold either government or industry accountable.

"What I want to do is make sure we have the safety mechanisms in place so that we can ensure sustained compliance across the industry," Ms. Bond told reporters Monday. The meeting, held on Friday, revolved around WorkSafeBC's previous inspection blitz that showed a significant number of sawmills failed to meet new sawdust cleanup standards.

Combustible sawdust has been identified as the key fuel in the two catastrophic explosions that occurred just months apart in early 2012.

In addition to boosting WorkSafeBC's sawmill safety team, a team of technical experts from the forest industry is being assembled to help mills improve safety compliance.

As well, the industry association, the Council of Forest Industries, is looking at making safety compliance a condition of membership.

NDP Opposition Leader Adrian Dix dismissed the efforts, however, outlining instead the terms of reference for a public inquiry he says is needed to get at the "the truth" about how those mills exploded, killing four workers and injuring scores more.

The NDP, along with the families involved in the two explosions, are calling for a public inquiry because no criminal charges have been laid.

A WorkSafeBC investigation into the fire that consumed Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake concluded the mill's owners failed to manage combustible sawdust. The results of the investigation into the Lakeland Mills explosion will be released in April.

Mr. Dix noted that since federal legislation was passed allowing for employers to be held accountable for workplace fatalities, 1,350 people have died on the job in B.C. and not a single criminal charge has been prosecuted.

"What that tells you is that as a matter of policy the [provincial] government thinks that form of accountability – passed unanimously by the Parliament of Canada – should not apply in British Columbia," he said.

Mr. Dix met with the families in Burns Lake to draft the proposed terms for an inquiry, which would look at the actions of government, industry and workers leading up to and following the Babine mill explosion. The mill has been rebuilt and its owners have invited Premier Christy Clark to return for the official reopening, expected in April.

Wilf Adams, chief of the Lake Babine First Nation, said he will use the opportunity to press for a public inquiry. "I do hope the Premier makes it up. If she decides not come up, it will make things worse," he said in an interview.

The Babine mill is the primary employer in Burns Lake, and one of the injured workers sits on the band council. The chief said there is a high degree of frustration in the community after the Premier initially promised there would be justice. "If they keep stonewalling us, we'll take other action," he said.

Ms. Bond however maintained that there is no need to call a public inquiry. "We are going to work as tirelessly as we can to ensure we have the safe workplaces that British Columbians and families should expect," she told reporters on Monday. But she said the coroner's inquest, which will be held in the fall, is the best place to look at the questions that remain.

Mr. Dix said the coroner's inquest will be helpful but will not, in the space of a couple of weeks, provide the "depth of analysis" required to look into the issue of workplace safety in B.C. sawmills.