B.C.'s Labour Minister has acknowledged the government can do little to atone for the deaths of four mill workers, but Shirley Bond said changes to the way the workers' compensation board operates should ensure the situation is never repeated.
Ms. Bond on Tuesday ruled out criminal charges against the two mills that had tragic explosions in 2012 apparently due to sawdust build-up. Despite demands from families of the victims, there will also not be a public inquiry.
"We can't go back. We need to move forward," she told a news conference.
But Ms. Bond said she hoped the reforms would bring some comfort to the families.
An explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake killed two workers and injured 20, while an explosion months later at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George killed two and injured 22. WorkSafeBC investigations found the conditions for a wood-dust explosion existed in both mills. The agency concluded regulatory charges should be laid in the Babine explosion, but the Crown refused, saying the investigation had violated the Charter rights of those involved.
A later probe by senior deputy minister John Dyble found WorkSafeBC was warned for years that its investigative methods might prompt Charter concerns, but it did not change its practices.
The families said again on Tuesday they want a public inquiry. Ms. Bond, instead, said her ministry would ensure changes are made.
"Today's review and action plan is our road map to make those changes," Ms. Bond said.
The government has accepted all 43 recommendations in a report by WorkSafeBC administrator Gordon Macatee released on Tuesday, including tougher mill inspections, agreements to work with police as part of a more clearly outlined investigation process and new measures to resolve appeals.
"The implementation of these recommendations will give WorkSafe the tools they need to be able to address non-compliance faster and to deal more firmly with situations where there is a risk to health and safety in the workplace," Mr. Macatee said.
Under Mr. Macatee's plan, an investigation team that suspected its probe could lead to charges would pass the case on to a second team that would begin anew using warrants to collect evidence, reinterviewing all parties and notifying people of their Charter rights when required.
John Little, whose son Alan was killed in the Lakeland explosion, said that over all he would give the reforms a "passing grade. Right now, it's a C." But he said was impressed with the suggestion of split teams for investigations.
"I like the idea there will be a staff level that deals with things that need to be followed up with the potential of charges and other action," he said.
Still, he said he was exasperated at the absence of commitment to a public inquiry or charges. "The Sawmill Families – as we have been calling ourselves – will push for that."
Maureen Luggi, whose husband, Robert, was killed in the Babine explosion, said she would like more aggressive use of the so-called Westray law, which emerged in 2004 from the 1992 coal-mine disaster in Nova Scotia that killed 26. It imposes a "legal duty" on employers to take steps to prevent bodily harm to workers and is supposed to make it easier to charge companies with criminal negligence. "I appreciate reports and reviews, but we need action," she said.
Rhonda Roche, whose husband, Glenn, was killed in Lakeland blast, said she was pleased at the momentum for change, but the measures seemed like rules that should have long ago been in place.
"That's great for the future, but it doesn't deal with any of our families," she said.
Irene Lanzinger, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said some recommendations are good but they do not go far enough.
The federation has been asking for criminal prosecution of negligent employers responsible for worker deaths to be made easier. Ms. Lanzinger said that if implemented, some of the report's recommendations will make it more likely that investigations can lead to criminal charges. "It goes some way down the road to criminal prosecution but not far enough."
Also, the federation wanted a dedicated Crown prosecutor for cases where an employer's negligence results in serious injury or death of a worker, rules and guidelines to help prosecutors decide whether charges should go ahead, and more education for prosecutors, police and WorkSafeBC investigators.
Stephen Hunt, Western Canadian director of the United Steelworkers, said some of the recommendations in the report could be made stronger – for example, assigning police to investigate fatalities.
As it stands, WorkSafe is a "toothless tiger," he said.