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opinion

The B.C. government was preparing to release a progress report on worker safety in forest-product mills earlier this month when an explosion ripped through a wood-pellet plant in Burns Lake, injuring three workers.

The update would have trumpeted how the government is making progress on a series of recommendations to improve workplace safety – changes designed to make sure the circumstances that led to two deadly sawmill explosions two years ago would never be repeated.

Instead, Shirley Bond, the minister responsible for WorkSafeBC, found herself on Oct. 9 answering questions about how a third incident could happen.

Ms. Bond vowed to make forest-sector workers safer after the explosions in 2012, including one in her hometown of Prince George. The incidents left four men dead, dozens more injured and exposed a widespread hazard of combustible sawdust.

The government and WorkSafeBC continue to investigate what happened at the Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. facility in Burns Lake earlier this month and it may well be that the Pinnacle explosion has nothing in common with previous two.

What is clear, however, is that the government was aware that the pellet industry in B.C. is struggling to manage safety risks.

WorkSafeBC ramped up inspections of the province's 85 sawmills after the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake was levelled and the Lakeland mill in Prince George was destroyed three months later. Last spring, the enforcement drive targeting combustible dust was expanded to include 15 other wood-product facilities including the province's wood-pellet manufacturers.

The wood-pellet industry is inherently high-risk. Truckloads of sawdust are conveyed through a mill to be compressed into fuel pellets. The whole process disperses combustible dust, which is easily ignited.

Inspectors visited two pellet mills in April and both failed tests. At that point, the inspections stopped. The owners of all the mills were brought in to be reminded about the hazards of combustible sawdust.

It is difficult to comprehend that in 2014, there might be a single operator of any kind of wood-products mill in B.C. who wouldn't be aware of the explosion risk of poorly managed sawdust. But even after that intervention, when the inspections resumed, only four of the 10 mills passed inspection. (Pinnacle's Burns Lake plant, although it had been fined for violations in 2013, was one of the four that was in compliance.)

Gord Macatee explained part of the problem in his report to government in July, which included 43 recommendations. Ms. Bond had planned to report on their progress this month.

Mr. Macatee was brought into WorkSafeBC to repair the regulator's shattered reputation after the sawmill explosions in 2012. The agency responsible for workplace safety hadn't prevented the incidents that it later concluded were preventable. Then, it couldn't get charges against the mills' owners to stick because it botched its investigations.

In his report, Mr. Macatee concluded the agency needs more clout to get compliance from the industries it regulates.

Penalties are slow to come and often too light, it is too difficult to obtain a stop-work order when worker safety is compromised and no one has been successfully prosecuted for putting employees at risk, he wrote. The agency responsible for worker safety can't deter scofflaw employers.

"There is a record of one operator who has had several hundred orders written, penalties assessed that have not been paid, and has been in front of a judge for an injunction application, but this operator is still in business and putting worker health and safety at risk," he wrote. (WorkSafeBC won't identify that employer.)

Ms. Bond has accepted Mr. Macatee's recommendations and may be drafting legislative changes this fall. But he also included a warning that she needs to address: "WorkSafeBC cannot sustain the recent level of direct oversight on the combustible dust issue or important work in other sectors can be expected to suffer," he wrote.

Does WorkSafeBC need more resources, or does government expect the forest industry to manage these continued problems on its own?