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The scene at the Jan. 21, 2012 Abine Forest Products mill explosion is shown in Burns Lake, B.C. Three mill workers were injured Thursday in a fire and explosion at a northern British Columbia wood pellet plant, which was the site of a less serious explosion two years ago and was recently fined for "repeated" safety violations.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

As three men recover from injuries sustained in an explosion at a Burns Lake wood pellet plant, a union official is questioning whether enough is being done to enforce safety protocols in the industry.

WorkSafeBC had in May issued two penalties totalling nearly $98,000 to Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. in relation to inspections carried out in May and October of 2013 at its Burns Lake plant. The worker-protection agency had found hazardous levels of primary and secondary dust accumulated on horizontal surfaces, which could cause a fire or explosion.

The plant then brought itself into compliance and a June 17 inspection determined that the issue of combustible dust was being adequately managed.

But WorkSafeBC inspections have found that pellet plants over all have a compliance rate of just 40 per cent when it comes to managing combustible dust, leading some to ask whether enough is being done to prevent accidents such as the one that took place Thursday – and who is to blame when they do happen.

"Something definitely needs to change," said United Steelworkers Wood Council chair Bob Matters, speaking about the inspection process generally. "Any system where you're repeatedly investigating and finding problems, then there's a problem getting the results addressed appropriately." Mr. Matters noted WorkSafeBC has a full array of tools to enforce workplace safety – such as stop-work orders, when necessary – and wondered whether they were being fully utilized.

It is not yet known if hazardous levels of dust are to blame for Thursday's incident. But Leroy Reitsma, president and chief operating officer at Pinnacle, said that while the company is awaiting the results of ongoing investigations, it was unfair to draw a parallel between the plant's previous infractions and Thursday's accident.

"This was something that happened inside a piece of process equipment," he said. "It's not related to an accumulation of surface dust."

Three men – two from the Village of Telkwa and one from Quick – sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries in Thursday's blast.

Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam, who visited the hospital in Burns Lake upon hearing of the news, said he saw three people arrive with burns: one man in his 30s, brought in on a stretcher, and two others, who appeared to be in their 20s, walking in on their own.

Two of the men were then taken to a hospital in Prince George and released later that night. The third is being kept for observation at a hospital in Vancouver, Mr. Reitsma said.

Labour critic Harry Bains, who in April introduced a private member's bill aimed at strengthening workplace death legislation, said the Liberal government has not made workers' health and safety a priority.

"It's government's ideology of allowing companies to self-police and self-regulate," he said. "As a result of that we have seen disasters – Mount Polley to Burns Lake. I don't think government's got it yet."

Investigations by both WorkSafeBC and Pinnacle into the cause of Thursday's incident continue.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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