Just months before the Babine Forest Products sawmill blew up, killing two workers, the company asked British Columbia's safety regulator for guidance on whether the dust levels in the facility posed a hazard. The only concern that was flagged was air quality, the mill operators said Wednesday.
In the company's first statement since the B.C. criminal justice branch announced no charges will be laid, Babine Forest Products says the safety regulator never warned the company of the potential for a catastrophic, sawdust-fuelled explosion.
"We believe the underlying cause of the explosions at our mill was fine sawdust from beetle-kill wood," the statement from Babine Forest Products Ltd. states. WorkSafeBC inspectors were invited to look at the dust levels at the Burns Lake mill in B.C.'s Interior just months before the Jan. 20, 2012, explosion, but the regulator raised no concern that dust levels in the mill posed a risk of a dust explosion.
"To our knowledge, prior to January 20, 2012, no one in the sawmilling industry knew this fact, and no representative of WorkSafe had expressed that fact to the industry, nor had Babine or any other sawmill in British Columbia received a warning related to combustible sawdust from any regulator."
WorkSafeBC's investigation into the mill blast concluded that the deaths were preventable, and that operators of the sawmill were well aware of shortcomings in managing sawdust. "Effective actions should have been taken to control both the airborne dispersal of wood dust as well as the excessive accumulations on floors and surfaces," the report, released last week, concluded. "Such actions might have prevented this accident."
The investigation found that water-misting systems were not operational at Babine, and that air-filter bags were plugged up and frozen in the weeks prior to the explosion. Workers later recounted that the sawdust was so thick that they couldn't see clearly across the mill at times.
The union representing sawmill workers said Wednesday the industry did not fully understand the risk prior to the blast – but it should have. "I say, yes they should have [known]. But so should the regulator," said Steve Hunt, director for Western Canada of the United Steelworkers. "I think there was a total system failure here. People who ought to have known failed to act."
A review of the five years of WorkSafeBC inspection reports at that mill shows there were no specific warnings about the huge amounts of dry dust in the mill presenting a risk of explosion.
In November, 2011, an inspector sampled the air in the Babine mill "to assess workers' exposure to softwood dust in this workplace." The inspector followed up on Dec. 28, 2011, with a warning that "workers in various positions in the sawmill are exposed to pine wood dust in excess of the exposure limit, which suggests that the current ventilation systems and water misters are not adequately protecting some workers." However the inspector did not recommend immediate enforcement, and mill owners were given until the end of January to devise a plan to reduce the dust exposure to employees.
The question of whether the company should have known the risk was a key factor in the decision by the criminal justice branch to reject WorkSafeBC's recommendation to lay charges. "An accused may argue that he or she … did not know and could not reasonably have known the risk posed by a situation," the branch stated in its decision. The Crown also criticized the WorkSafeBC investigation, saying some evidence would be inadmissible in court.
Kerry Douglas, safety manager for the West Fraser timber company, agreed that the risk was little understood two years ago. "I've been the industry for over 40 years; that's the way the industry has always looked at wood dust – as a housekeeping issue."
However there were inklings of concern. In April, 2010, WorkSafeBC produced guidelines on chemical and biological substances that warned that "a layer of dust as thin as a dime" in a sawmill could cause an explosion. Even a small explosion could stir up enough dust to fuel something far more dangerous: "This dislodged dust then mixes with air, creating a much larger dust cloud which can then be ignited and react explosively, creating a secondary catastrophic explosion," those guidelines state.
On the ground, however, there is little indication that the explosion risk was commonly understood.
Three months after the Babine fire, a second sawmill exploded, killing another two workers in Prince George's Lakeland Mills plant. A review of WorkSafeBC inspections in the five years previous showed that one inspector did flag the issue of sawdust at Lakeland, but it appears there was no follow-up.
A February, 2009, inspection report at Lakeland recommended that "wood dust exposure will be further evaluated during subsequent inspections. This is an item that should be re-evaluated due to the changes in productivity that has occurred over recent years and the fact the majority of the wood being processed is dry beetle-killed pine."
But the issue wasn't mentioned again in the Lakeland inspection files until a few weeks after the Babine fire. "There are accumulations of piles of wood dust in various areas of the mill. We reviewed the requirement to prevent the accumulation of hazardous amounts of wood dust," the report states.