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WorkSafeBC's caution to release findings ill-timed

" No preliminary findings into the Burns Lake investigation are available at this time and WorkSafeBC is not in a position to release information that might compromise the process," WorkSafeBC spokesperson Roberta Ellis said before a second mill explosion.

The tragic explosion at the Lakeland Mills in Prince George that killed two people occurred five days after completion of the first phase of a WorkSafeBC investigation into an explosion last January at a mill in Burns Lake that also took two lives.

WorkSafeBC at that time refused to release its preliminary findings from the Burns Lake mill explosion. A senior executive with WorkSafeBC, Roberta Ellis, this week reiterated the reluctance in the Burns Lake case. The agency would reveal what it had found as soon as it had conclusions that were definitive, she told reporters.

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But WorkSafeBC shifted gears late Wednesday and indicated that, in a week or so, the agency will reveal what has been ruled out in the Burns Lake investigation. "We are in extraordinary times here," Ms. Ellis said in an interview.

WorkSafeBC will not talk about what it is still looking at. "We do need to be quite cautious. We have obligations to be fair and follow due process, in terms of the rights of all the parties," she said. But the agency hopes to reveal some of the things it no longer suspects as causes of the explosion.

A spokesman for Canada's largest security consulting and risk mitigation firm says WorkSafeBC may be allowing concerns over litigation to trump safety.

"Their mandate is to protect workers. Why are they not releasing information that might protect other workers?" Mark LaLonde, a director at CKR Global Risk Solutions, said in an interview. "We have other workers potentially at risk. We do not know if there is a risk that could be mitigated or was this just a freak accident. We just do not know. I do not think that is appropriate."

The explosions at Burns Lake and Prince George flummoxed observers, who said they had never seen anything similar happening at the mills. Both mills were cutting pine beetle-infested wood that produces a fine, dry sawdust; no other similarity has been publicly identified.

WorkSafeBC sent an investigative team that involved up to 20 people to the Burns Lake mill. They spent three months searching for fuel sources that could have been a factor or caused the explosion. They interviewed more than 80 people – mill employees, the mill owner and anyone else they could find who had pertinent information.

Pieces of equipment gathered at the mill were sent to a lab for testing. Once the results come back, all the information has to be analyzed. Completing the job could take "many more months," a news release issued last week stated.

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Similar WorkSafeBC resources will be available for the Prince George investigation. Ms. Ellis anticipates the investigation of the site will be completed in two or three months and the entire review could be concluded in six months. Investigators are now waiting for the RCMP to complete their work and turn over the site, she added.

Mr. Lalonde said the reluctance of WorkSafeBC to release a preliminary report when information is available is "ludicrous."

"If you do not release preliminary information soon, that risk may still be out there and other workers may lose their lives," he said.

Ms. Ellis said investigators require time to complete their work. "It does not do justice to the [matter under investigation]to release information before we are certain we are correct. … There is nothing good about a quick investigation that is just wrong," she said.

But it should not have taken another explosion before WorkSafeBC considered sharing some of its findings from Burns Lake.

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