The night that a sawmill in Prince George exploded, two of B.C.'s leading forestry executives – normally fierce competitors – picked up the phone to talk.
Hank Ketcham, chair of West Fraser Timber, called Don Kayne, CEO of Canfor. The two companies are giants in the B.C. forest industry and they run head to head in the province's Interior. But both men were driven that night by fear of a crisis they saw headed their way.
The Lakeland Mills explosion and fire on April 24, 2012, came just three months after a similar blast levelled the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake. Four workers were dead, dozens injured. It would be many months before the cause of the two explosions would be explained, but the safety of the industry was now in question.
"You're thinking, 'what the hell is going on?'" recounts Mr. Ketcham in an interview. "We felt it was critical for the industry to act quickly, to find out the reasons for the explosions … You don't want an epidemic of these things."
A series of telephone calls between Mr. Ketcham and Mr. Kayne led to an extraordinary meeting of 12 CEOs from the province's major wood-products manufacturing companies at the Vancouver airport a little more than a week after the Lakeland incident.
At that meeting, the industry chiefs pledged to spearhead a joint effort to assess the combustion risks related to dust and then to figure out the best way to control that dust. They agreed to adopt independent audits to ensure that new safety standards were implemented in their mills.
They were well ahead of the industry's regulators.
Although there were guidelines in place from WorkSafeBC warning of the risk of major sawdust-fuelled explosions, at the time no specific regulations defined just how much dust presented a risk.
Dust-fuelled industrial explosions were well-documented in the United States. Closer to home, a dust explosion in 2010 shut down a Teck coal mine near Elkford for months. But there is scant evidence that either the B.C. forest industry, or its safety regulators, appreciated that risk even as the industry shifted to processing dry, dead wood left behind by the pine-beetle epidemic.
There was complacency because there hadn't been a major incident in a B.C. sawmill.
"Companies really hadn't thought a great deal about that kind of an issue," said Ken Higginbotham, the project manager who was hired to piece it all together on behalf of the CEOs.
It was only after the second mill fire that WorkSafeBC issued a directive to the industry, reminding sawmill operators that "if combustible dust collects in a building or structure or on machinery or equipment, it must be safely removed before accumulation of the dust could cause a fire or explosion."
The mill owners were ordered to conduct their own risk assessments of the hazards created by combustible dusts, and to develop and implement an effective combustible dust control program.
But how much dust posed a risk? Mr. Higginbotham's group set out to find out.
They hired a third party to collect 400 samples of sawdust – both from greenwood and from beetle-killed trees that most Interior mills were processing. Tested for their explosive properties, those samples confirmed that the dead wood was more dangerous. From that, they were able to define just how much dust created a risk, which became a WorkSafeBC regulation just last month.
Mr. Higginbotham's team reviewed the research about combustible dust hazards. They studied the catastrophic explosion in a sugar refinery in the U.S. in 2008, which killed 14 workers. They toured grain-handling facilities in the Port of Vancouver, where the risk has long been managed by eliminating every possible flat surface to prevent dust accumulations.
"While a loss of life and serious injury is a terrible thing, there is a silver line associated with this, in the fact that the CEOs of a dozen companies that probably account for 70 per cent of the production in B.C. have come together to co-operate around safety," Mr. Higginbotham said. The industry has since spent millions of dollars to improve dust control.
Steve Hunt of the United Steelworkers is the top union official representing wood-product mill workers in B.C. He refused to take part in the CEOs' safety initiative, arguing the regulations should be established and upheld by WorkSafeBC, rather than the companies.
However, he accepts that the industry-led safety initiatives, combined with WorkSafeBC's increased enforcement in the past two years, have made B.C. mills safer places to work.
"I don't think self-regulation is a good idea, but when the CEOs came out of their corner offices, it sent a message to the [workers on the] floor that safety comes before production, that no two-by-four is worth more than someone's life," Mr. Hunt said. "And that, we welcome."
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