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Jobs Minister pressed to act after emotional exchange with grieving families of mill workers

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond will sit down on Monday with top executives from the forest industry to confront them about a dismal new report on sawmill safety.

Two years after a pair of deadly sawmill explosions in central B.C., WorkSafeBC inspectors checked every mill in the province for dangerous accumulations of sawdust. Two out of every five mills failed the test.

Ms. Bond heads into that meeting still raw from an unexpected and emotional encounter last week with survivors from the two explosions – incidents that were triggered by excessive buildup of combustible sawdust.

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The group from the Babine and Lakeland mills included badly scarred workers, two widows, and a boy who lost his father in the flames. Ms. Bond, heading home to her Prince George riding, ended up in an airport lounge on Thursday night, waiting for the same flight.

"I know there are very few words that will comfort these families at this point in time," Ms. Bond said in an interview.

The workers and families from the Babine and Lakeland mill disasters had travelled to Victoria on Thursday to demand a public inquiry. Four men were killed, dozens more badly injured, and no charges have been laid.

The group sat in the public gallery of the legislature as Ms. Bond, in Question Period, explained why she won't call an inquiry – she insists it will not change anything.

Which made their later encounter all the more difficult.

Sitting in the airport lounge, Maureen Luggi, whose husband Robert died in the Babine mill, pressed Ms. Bond to come to her community to hear their concerns. "She said, 'I've been inspired by your healing journey,' " Ms. Luggi said of the encounter.

But Ms. Luggi's journey is just beginning.

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She had been silent for most of the past two years, waiting for justice to be dealt out. In January, she learned no charges would be laid against the owners of the Babine mill even though WorkSafeBC concluded the company was responsible and the explosion was preventable.

Now, she has found the strength to take on the provincial government.

She wants an independent inquiry, but she also wants the province to address the lack of support for the community in the wake of a tragedy that wiped out its main source of employment.

"I told her, this is a brand-new path," Ms. Luggi said. "No one should have to suffer like this. I'm not going to stop at anything."

Ms. Bond, who found herself near tears as she listened, has promised that her government will take action.

That begins on Monday morning with her meeting with industry. She wants WorkSafeBC to turn up the heat on the sawmills owners, to be more aggressive in issuing stop-work orders. She is open to jacking up the penalties when mill workers are put at risk.

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"It's unacceptable there is uncertainty for workers at some mills in the province," Ms. Bond later told The Globe and Mail.

"What I'm going to say to CEOs is that people in British Columbia today are questioning the intensity of response of some sawmill owners [to the sawdust risk]. We need to prove to British Columbians that you take this seriously and I expect to see a plan that indicates that."

From there, she is heading into a meeting with WorkSafeBC, to find out whether the agency is doing everything it can to throw the book at mill owners who don't comply with safety standards.

"Do we have enough tools, are they being applied aggressively, are the fines a big enough disincentive?"

In the last safety blitz, WorkSafeBC issued 13 stop-work orders and so far has levied one fine – for just $11,000.

Ms. Bond said she is prepared to give the workplace safety agency more powers, if needed, to clobber mill owners. And she wants a plan from WorkSafeBC to launch yet another round of inspections because it is clear, after two years, that not everyone has adapted to the risk that was exposed when the Babine mill was flattened on Jan. 20, 2012.

Ms. Bond's promises have to be backed up with action so that sawmill workers around the province can believe they are safe. As she acknowledged after her painful meeting on Thursday night, "Words can ring very hollow."

Follow me on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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