The owners of the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George invested millions of dollars in recent years to boost production, but didn't put the same effort into safety measures, an investigation into the explosion that killed two workers has concluded.
Greg Stewart, president of the company that owns Lakeland Mills, said Tuesday his company will embrace a culture of safety when a new replacement mill opens this fall, but maintained management "did everything reasonable to ensure our mill was safe."
The WorkSafeBC investigation noted there had been five fires involving sawdust at the mill in the months before the incident – including one the same day a dust-fuelled explosion flattened the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, killing two workers at that facility. There were known problems with the dust collection system, and numerous violations of the safety standards for electrical equipment.
Money was being spent on upgrades, but the priority was on producing more lumber. WorkSafeBC found that the mill had expanded its production capabilities, but the waste conveyors for those new systems were not installed. "There had been little work done on the sawmill dust collection system and the problems that this wood waste was causing," the investigation said.
The mill's own safety committee overlooked the problems, the investigation found.
"The accumulation of sawdust and the urgent need for its removal appears to have gone unnoticed in these inspections," the report says. "Dust was permitted to accumulate even in plain sight … Some workers may have become complacent, whereas others stated that they were tired of complaining about it as nothing was ever done."
But WorkSafeBC's own inspections also glossed over the dust problem.
On Feb. 3, 2012, a Lakeland employee anonymously called the agency to complain about excessive sawdust buildup on horizontal surfaces in the mill. The whistleblower said he was concerned about it "turning into the next Burns Lake sawmill." WorkSafeBC's inspectors, however, found no reason for alarm, and no violation orders were issued.
On Monday, the Criminal Justice Branch announced the company will face no charges in connection with the deaths of Glenn Roche and Al Little. Crown Counsel found that WorkSafeBC's failure to warn the company about the explosive risk of sawdust blunted the chances of a successful prosecution – a key reason no charges were laid.
Mr. Stewart welcomed the Crown's decision, saying it is impossible to pin the blame on one person or entity. However, he said the the company "failed the expectations" of its workers to keep them safe, and said he is "eternally sorry" for the deaths and injuries that occurred at his mill two years ago.
At a news conference in Prince George, he acknowledged the incident has undermined confidence in the company's safety record, which he said has always been central to operations. He said when the new mill opens, "we are going to make sure they understand they are safe, and they can refuse work if they are unsafe."
But Steve Hunt, regional president of the United Steelworkers' union, said the failure to bring forward charges in either of the deadly mill explosions demands a complete overhaul of the province's worker protection system that is failing in its primary task.
"You need very strong regulations that are prescriptive and enforced and that didn't happen here," he said. He added that WorkSafeBC should not be trusted to handle investigations into serious injuries and deaths in the workplace – something that should be left to the RCMP.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix, who met Tuesday with the injured workers and families of the workers who were killed at Lakeland, dismissed the government's promise to revamp WorkSafeBC, with a new administrator to look at a new structure to improve prevention efforts and investigations. Mr. Dix said that the government wants to "tinker" to avoid a public inquiry that might expose its own role in reducing workplace safety to ease the regulatory burden for employers.
"This isn't in any way sufficient," he said. "WorkSafe gets a tip about sawdust and nothing happens? There was clearly a policy decision not to deal with dust. And they don't want an independent assessment of that."