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Sawdust threat prompting regulator to shut down B.C. sawmills

A large fire burns at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., on Tuesday April 24, 2012. Provincial officials have not yet decided whether there will be a criminal prosecution in the case.


A crackdown on potentially explosive sawdust in B.C. forestry mills has led to a series of stop-work orders and threatened fines from the province's workplace safety regulator.

After two catastrophic mill explosions early in 2012 that have been blamed on the buildup of combustible dust, WorkSafeBC boosted its inspection regime to ensure that mill safety improves. But the string of infractions uncovered during the latest round of site visits, released Monday in response to a Freedom of Information request, show the industry still is struggling to adapt to new safety regulations.

Equipment "buried" in wood dust, mill sections that hadn't seen a cleanup crew in months, and damaged ventilation systems were among the problems cited by inspectors.

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"Unacceptable accumulations of both primary and secondary combustible dust [were] identified at this location," inspectors wrote after a tour of a Western Forest Products plant in Chemainus on Dec. 4. "These observations and conditions are indicative that the employer is not ensuring that inspections are adequate in identifying and preventing these conditions."

Another plant owned by the company found unacceptable accumulations of sawdust in the crawl space under a wood planer. "It is apparent that this location has not been cleaned for several months," the inspector wrote. "This semi-enclosed crawl space presents an immediate danger that would likely result in serious injury or death to a worker."

The Sigurdson Forest Products mill in Williams Lake was cited for repeated violations of the combustible-dust regulations.

Inspectors found all the elements for a potential explosion, including dust inside the high-voltage electrical vault. "This potentially brings together all the elements of the explosion pentagon, creating the conditions necessary for a primary explosion that could propagate into a secondary deflagration with the available fuel that was observed nearby in the sawmill basement," the Jan. 14 report states.

Those elements – an initial dust-fuelled fire that in turn triggered a massive fireball – were responsible for flattening the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake in January, 2012.

Two men were killed and 20 others seriously injured. Four months later, a similar incident destroyed the Lakeland Mills plant in Prince George, leaving two dead and injuring 22. WorkSafeBC has recommended charges be laid in both cases. However, the province's Criminal Justice Branch has refused to pursue the case against the Babine Forest Products mill, stating that WorkSafeBC botched the investigation. No decision has been made yet in the Lakeland Mills case.

Early in the investigation process, however, WorkSafeBC identified the risk of combustible dust and stepped up sawmill inspections. In addition, industry officials collaborated on new safety protocols.

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The agency has conducted three rounds of inspections, most recently this winter, to ensure those new protocols and a new set of regulations were being followed. Between Nov. 4, 2013 and Jan. 14, 2014, WorkSafeBC issued 13 stop-work orders at a string of mills, large and small, because of combustible-dust risks. In most cases, it found the companies were in line for administrative fines.

Some of the mills were among those whose management had led the initiative to improve standards industrywide.

Canfor's Chetwynd sawmill faced five safety orders after a Nov. 8 inspection. "The employer reported that daily inspections are now being completed but it was evident that some areas, particularly hidden or enclosed areas in the basement, may not be included on the inspection cycle," one inspector wrote.

"The employer has failed to ensure that regular and adequate inspections are made of process equipment or facilities to prevent the accumulation of combustible dusts."

Weyerheuser's Princeton Division was handed a stop-work order in one section of the mill when dust was found built up and in contact with potential ignition sources.

"[WorkSafeBC] has reasonable grounds for believing the condition described above presents an immediate danger that would likely result in serious injury, serious illness, or death to a worker," the inspector wrote.

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WorkSafeBC is still in the process of responding to a government request for an accounting of its conduct in the Babine investigation. After a critical report from Premier Christy Clark's office, however, WorkSafeBC's president and CEO, David Anderson, has announced his retirement.

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