Gord Macatee, the new administrator of WorkSafeBC, will tour sawmills and other high-risk workplaces early next month to get a grip on the changes needed to restore confidence in the beleaguered worker-protection agency.
WorkSafeBC is under fire after failing to secure charges in the deaths of four workers in two separate sawmill explosions months apart. The families and survivors of the two mill incidents are demanding a public inquiry, but the provincial government instead appointed Mr. Macatee to lead a restructuring.
On Tuesday, his first official day on the job, the agency's 2,800 workers were told changes will be made quickly. Labour Minister Shirley Bond has given Mr. Macatee until July 1 to produce recommendations. His tasks include finding a new CEO, fixing the investigations unit, and possibly bringing the agency's regulatory functions directly into government.
In an interview, Mr. Macatee said he hopes to keep the organization operating even through the uncertainty of the coming months.
"This organization does really important work and it's important that we stabilize things, that people stay focused on their important work," he said. "Much of the work done here is very well done."
In a letter to employees posted on Tuesday, the WorkSafeBC's chief operating officer, Diana Miles, said Mr. Macatee will work with the board and the executive to manage the transition. "While the time frame is short, it speaks to the importance and the urgency of the task. His review will be thorough and thoughtful, and he recognizes the importance of understanding our business and the range of views that are held in respect of regulation and enforcement," she wrote.
The Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake exploded in January, 2012, and three months later, an explosion flattened the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George. WorkSafeBC conducted detailed investigations into both incidents and recommended regulatory charges against the mill owners for failing to protect their workers from the hazard of combustible sawdust.
The Criminal Justice Branch refused to lay charges in either case, saying the agency botched the investigations by failing to respect Charter rights. As well, the branch said the companies had a solid defence because WorkSafeBC failed to alert them about the dangers: Inspectors had been at each of the mills in the weeks preceding the catastrophic explosions, which were fuelled by accumulations of sawdust.
Mr. Macatee said he wants to visit sawmills and other workplaces where employees are exposed to risky conditions to get a better understanding of WorkSafeBC's prevention work. But he will also look at other jurisdictions to determine if investigations should be handled by a different agency.
Some labour leaders have called for the RCMP to take over investigations into serious injuries and deaths in the workplace. In the sawmill explosions at Burns Lake and Prince George, police handed the investigation to WorkSafeBC after just a few days. In a report released last week, the Criminal Justice Branch was critical of the investigation that followed. "A number of areas of potentially relevant evidence were left unexplored," the branch concluded.
Mr. Macatee, a former deputy minister of health, has taken a leave of absence as commissioner of the ferry system to oversee the WorkSafeBC changes. The overhaul is expected to stretch into the fall. "I'm here for my first full day today, I'm not an expert – I have a mountain of learning to do."