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In Burns Lake sawmill stalemate, who is looking out for the workers?

Today, thousands of workers in B.C. will head to their shift in a mill, making wood products or aluminum, rubber or sugar – processes that generate high volumes of combustible dust – and they can rightly question whether their safety is at risk.

Two years ago, on Jan. 20, 2012, a catastrophic explosion levelled the mill at Babine Forest Products Ltd. Two workers were killed and 20 others badly injured.

The WorkSafeBC investigation revealed that in the rush to process pine beetle-killed wood, workplace safety was eroded. The deaths at the Babine mill were preventable. The mill's owners had been told to do a better job of cleaning up the dry, fine dust, but they did not do enough.

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However, the province's Criminal Justice Branch has refused to lay charges, saying investigators mishandled the probe.

That finding will have repercussions for future investigations, including the one, just wrapping up, into a sawmill explosion that killed two workers in Prince George just months after the incident at the Babine mill.

WorkSafeBC says it followed long-standing protocols for investigating deaths and serious injuries. The branch maintains it applied the same standards it has in the past.

It is unacceptable for WorkSafeBC and the criminal justice branch to be in a stalemate. It casts doubt over who is looking out for workers. The Premier has appointed a fact-finding mission, which should help resolve the dispute

That is not the only other loose thread. Two years on, the RCMP, WorkSafeBC and the agency representing municipal police have not yet approved a protocol that sets out how to respond to these kinds of workplace deaths. The draft is still kicking around.

On the enforcement side, it is not at all clear that employers have adapted to the now-obvious hazards of combustible dust. Starting last November, a team of 10 WorkSafeBC officers began a three-month campaign to inspect 146 sawmills. So far, 86 violation orders have been written and 12 "stop work" orders issued.

Jim Sinclair, head of the BC Federation of Labour, says the public has lost confidence in the system on an equally important part of the equation: consequences.

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B.C. employers are responsible for ensuring a healthy and safe workplace. WorkSafeBC is accountable for inspections and enforcement to ensure the safety standards are upheld for more than two million workers. When an employer's disregard for safety costs someone their life, Mr. Sinclair argues that the criminal justice system needs to ensure that meaningful consequences consistently follow.

The federation has been critical in the past when the Criminal Justice Branch has declined to lay charges after employees are killed on the job. When an overloaded passenger van carrying farm workers crashed in Chilliwack in 2007, killing four, the RCMP recommended criminal charges. Instead, lesser chargers under the Motor Vehicle Act were pursued.

And the Criminal Justice Branch stayed charges against a forestry company in the death of a sawmill worker in November, 2004. In that case, New Westminster police investigated and saw "reasonable grounds to believe that the offence of criminal negligence causing death in relation to the death of Lyle Hewer has been committed by Weyerhaeuser Company Ltd."

So WorkSafeBC is not the only investigative agency that has received a cold shoulder from the Criminal Justice Branch over workplace deaths.

"This reflects badly on the Crown," Mr. Sinclair said. "The average person going to work today wants to know these agencies can work together. They want to know that if the employer is criminally negligent, that action will be taken."

The families of the victims at the Babine mill are understandably angry no one has been held accountable.

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Mr. Sinclair is not suggesting the government interfere with that decision by the Criminal Justice Branch, which must remain at arms-length from politics. But he calls for a policy framework that states it is in the public interest to pursue charges in such cases.

"We need the government to offer a clear direction, so that families who have lost members in incidents know what the standard is, that the Crown will go to court," he said. "It will make the world a safer place for every worker."

But so far, the minister responsible, Shirley Bond, has been disinclined to talk. In a bland written statement issued on Friday, she stated: "If there are lessons to be learned to make sure this doesn't happen again, we will learn them."

Two years since the Babine explosion, after an exhaustive investigation, the province is still wondering if there are lessons to be learned?

How about this: There should be a clear understanding of who investigates workplace deaths, and how those probes should be conducted. Investigators should have expertise in this field. And employers should understand that violations will not be tolerated – that real consequences will flow when profit margins trump safety.

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