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The Babine sawmill is shown after the explosion and fire on Jan. 20, 2012.

The agency responsible for workplace safety conducted a workshop on the dangers of combustible dust two years before a pair of B.C. sawmill explosions that killed four workers, but failed to bring those lessons into the mills, say opposition New Democrats.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix released details of the WorkSafeBC workshop, held in Richmond on March 17, 2010, that featured a U.S. expert on how to identify, evaluate and control the risk of combustible dust. Accumulations of dry sawdust have since been blamed for the massive explosions at the Babine Forest Products and Lakeland Mills facilities.

"Participants will acquire vital information necessary in identifying, evaluating and controlling combustible dust hazards in the workplace," the workshop promised. The meeting was attended by about 40 WorkSafeBC prevention officers, along with 40 fire-services officials. A month later, the agency produced guidelines that warned "a layer of dust as thin as a dime" in a sawmill could cause an explosion hazard.

"This shows frontline staff at WorkSafeBC knew there was a problem, but they didn't enforce it," Mr. Dix said in an interview. "We are beginning to see why the government is so reluctant to have an independent public inquiry, because there is responsibility there."

The agency's own investigation into the mill explosion at Babine acknowledged that "prior to the incident, WorkSafeBC did not enforce the combustible dust provisions." An inspector did flag the buildup of sawdust just weeks before the explosion and fire that killed Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr., but the mill's owners were given time to improve the ventilation system.

Premier Christy Clark told reporters Wednesday that her government is making changes to improve workers' safety in B.C. sawmills but agreed more needs to be done and changes are still due at WorkSafeBC.

"WorkSafeBC needs to be improving its practises," she said. The Premier blamed the "culture" for an investigation that failed to bring charges against the Babine mill's owners. The agency is still considering imposing fines on the mill's ownership, Hampton Affiliates, for its role in what WorkSafeBC concluded was a preventable incident.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond said her ministry is working with industry, labour and WorkSafeBC to bring about better sawmill safety. The agency has stepped up inspections in sawmills and in a report earlier this year revealed that a significant number of mills are still failing to meet new regulations for combustible dust.

The Premier said those efforts will continue. "We have to make sure we have the safest sawmills in the world here in B.C. and we are not there yet."

In the next few weeks, the criminal justice branch is expected to release its decision on whether it will prosecute the owners of the Lakeland Mills in Prince George for the deaths of Alan Little and Glenn Roche. The families from both mills have been asking for a public inquiry into sawmill safety.

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