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Ronda Roche’s husband, Glenn, died in the Lakeland Mill explosion.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

For the second time this year, the agency responsible for workplace safety in British Columbia has been blamed for allowing employers to avoid prosecution for the deaths of their employees.

Dangerous levels of combustible sawdust have been identified as the trigger for two sawmill explosions in northern B.C. in early 2012, just months apart. A total of four men were killed and more than 40 other workers were badly injured, but the owners of the Lakeland and Babine sawmills will face no more than fines.

In both cases, the Criminal Justice Branch says it cannot pursue charges because WorkSafeBC failed to warn the mills about the hazards, and then botched the subsequent investigations.

B.C. Labour Minister Shirley Bond announced Monday that she is putting the agency under new management – Gord Macatee is the temporary administrator of WorkSafeBC, with a mandate to direct changes to the organization's structure and personnel. Ms. Bond said the change is designed to restore confidence in the province's workplace safety regime.

"I am deeply sorry for what the families and our community have had to go through," Ms. Bond said. She said she could not act on WorkSafeBC before Monday for fear of derailing the charge approval process.

But in a damning report released Monday, the Criminal Justice Branch concluded the case was fouled from the very start: WorkSafeBC effectively wrote the mill's "due diligence" defence by failing to clearly warn mill management of the hazards of combustible sawdust.

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix said the result reinforces the need for a public inquiry – something the families at both mills have called for. "Justice has been denied to the families of the deceased as well as for the survivors," he told reporters. He said the mill owners have not been held accountable for unsafe working conditions, but he also blasted WorkSafeBC "mismanagement" for failing to prevent the explosions.

Both cases will be the subject of coroner's inquests. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said Monday she will personally preside over both cases, and may merge them into a single hearing.

Following a lengthy investigation, WorkSafeBC recommended four regulatory charges against Lakeland Mills in Prince George. The Criminal Justice Branch concluded it "could prove the underlying factual elements … captured by each of the four offences."

But Crown counsel argued there is no substantial likelihood of conviction, in part because the investigation was flawed because search warrants were not obtained, so some of the evidence would be inadmissible in court. That echoes a similar finding in the Babine Forest Products case in Burns Lake.

Even if the evidence held up, the owners of the mill would have a solid case that they were not negligent because WorkSafeBC hadn't flagged the risk.

The agency's inspectors, acting on an anonymous complaint about sawdust hazards, checked the Lakeland mill just weeks before the explosion. "Lakeland can be expected to … argue that if an officer with training and previous involvement in settled and airborne combustible dust inspections or investigations did not identify a fire and explosion hazard, then Lakeland cannot reasonably be expected to have foreseen the sawdust-related fire and explosion hazard that caused the incident of April 23, 2012."

The statement from the Criminal Justice Branch includes a summary of the WorkSafeBC investigation findings, which had not yet been publicly released. The agency believes a gear reducer jammed in the basement, and the heat from the friction ignited airborne sawdust. A fireball spread through the sawmill, with the pressure wave lofting more sawdust into the air which triggered violent, secondary explosions.

As well, the B.C. Safety Authority examined the Lakeland mill site after the fire and explosion, and identified electrical equipment violations. It is not clear if those problems were related to the fire and explosion.

Alan Little and Glenn Roche died as a result of their injuries at the Lakeland Mill. Mr. Roche's wife Ronda Roche told The Globe and Mail her husband had been outspoken about his concerns about safety after the Babine explosion three months earlier which killed Robert Luggi Jr. and Carl Charlie.

Follow me on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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