In an unprecedented, precautionary crackdown, safety officials are ordering every sawmill in B.C. to remove all accumulated sawdust from their premises, a factor cited as a possible trigger of two catastrophic mill explosions in the past three months.
The edict, to be issued on Thursday by WorkSafeBC, comes after a devastating blast levelled the Lakeland Mills in Prince George on Monday night, killing two workers. In January, a sawmill exploded in Burns Lake, claiming two victims.
Investigators are focusing on high levels of sawdust from the cutting of wood killed by pine beetles as a possible trigger.
Two WorkSafeBC inspection reports disclosed on Wednesday showed earlier concern over dust at the Lakeland Mills. One of the inspections took place in February, just two weeks after the Babine Forest Products Mill blew up in Burns Lake.
Concerning the new order, Roberta Ellis, vice-president of corporate services for the safety agency, said mills must look at all dust in their operations – accumulating on equipment and in the air.
"Sawmills are dusty places," Ms. Ellis said, adding that dust must be cleared away and the air ventilated.
Union leader Stephen Hunt said he is not aware of any previous safety order of such magnitude.
"When there are still no definitive findings of what caused the first explosion, to come up with an order saying, 'Get rid of all the dust,' that's erring on the side of safety, and we think it's spectacular."
Mr. Hunt, regional director of the United Steelworkers, which represents the sawmill employees, was told of the move at a hastily scheduled meeting with Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and union and forest industry representatives.
He said the order includes removing sawdust from all species and age of wood, not just dead timber ravaged by the mountain pine beetle.
A WorkSafeBC report by officer Kim Hess on Feb . 9 referred to "accumulations of piles of wood dust in various areas of the [Lakeland]mill. ... We reviewed the requirement to prevent the accumulation of hazardous amounts of wood dust."
In 2009, an inspection report found that Lakeland had not been monitoring worker exposure to wood dust.
"This is an item that should be re-evaluated due to the changes in productivity that has occurred over recent years, and the fact that the majority of the wood being processed is dry, beetle-killed pine," the report said.
Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., said he was not aware of the February report until Wednesday, since the agency issued no order.
He said the mill's operations manager would have dealt with the matter. But he acknowledged that debris was cleaned away after the inspection and the company increased its clean-up crew to five from three workers, characterizing those actions as "a significant response."
Mr. Hunt of the Steelworkers questioned why the safety inspector did not make an order. "I don't know why they wouldn't do that."
A WorkSafeBC representative could not be reached for comment on the reports.
Investigators are still working on their probe of the Burns Lake explosion, and have yet to gain access to the still-smouldering site of the Lakeland Mills conflagration.
Meanwhile, forest workers and companies are worried about potentially dangerous conditions at other mills.
The blast that levelled the Babine operation in Burns Lake was the first time a sawmill had exploded in B.C. Now, it has happened twice in short order.
John Allan, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, said the ConflixTimber sawmill in Fort St. James temporarily ceased operations this week to clear out all possible hazards, including sawdust.
"Quite a few others are also stepping up their clean-up of dust. Everyone wants to be careful," Mr. Allan said.
On the union side, Mr. Hunt said he'd heard of one sawmill where workers began using air hoses on their own in an effort to remove dust.
But that may not be the right thing to do, he added.
"People are concerned, but going into a sawmill and blowing sawdust around because they think that's the right thing to do may inadvertently do something to contribute to another disaster," he said.
"The real story is that something is happening in these mills that we have not seen before. We are at a critical time."
With a report from Robert Matas