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The Globe and Mail

Red tape and sawdust: Two views of B.C. workplace safety

Illustration by David Parkins

The Globe and Mail

The national day of mourning for workers killed on the job was marked last weekend by B.C.'s Labour Minister, Margaret MacDiarmid, in a community hall in Burns Lake. Jim Sinclair, the head of the B.C. Federation of Labour and a leading critic of the province's record on workplace safety, was there too.

Residents of the northern town are grieving the loss of two workers killed when the Babine Lake Forests Products mill exploded in January. But the gathering came just days after a second deadly sawmill blast in Prince George, and Mr. Sinclair observed both fear and anger among the forest workers and their families in the room.

Ms. MacDiarmid remembers the breakfast gathering differently, remarking on the love and compassion shown by the tight-knit community.

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Their perspectives on the state of workplace safety in British Columbia are also worlds apart.

The Labour Minister says B.C. workers are safer today – injuries and death by trauma in the workplace are down over the past decade.

Mr. Sinclair, however, says the two mill explosions highlight how a policy shift by the B.C. Liberal government has undermined worker safety. In 2001, the government began a campaign to reduce bureaucratic regulation. In 2003, 400 worker safety regulations were eliminated to meet the government's targets.

Today, the legacy of the two sawmill explosions, which have killed four workers and left others with serious burns, is almost certainly going to be more regulation, with Ms. MacDiarmid expected to roll out the kind of enforceable safety rules her government once derisively described as red tape.

The investigations into the mill explosions by WorkSafeBC are not complete, but vice-president Roberta Ellis says there is little doubt now that the super-fine, bone-dry sawdust in those two mills will be part of the story when it finally comes out.

There is a regulation on the books that states employers shouldn't let combustible sawdust build up to the point that it could cause a fire or an explosion. That is the kind of "performance-based" measure that the B.C. Liberal government prefers.

What is now under consideration is more prescriptive – setting out exactly what range of dust levels are safe.

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And that's not all. Because even if the explosions were fuelled by sawdust, there has to be an ignition source. So every aspect of the sawmilling process must be examined. The size of the dust particles created by new sawing technology. The moisture content of the pine beetle-killed wood that many interior mills are cutting. Ventilation. Electrical components and welding that can generate arcs and sparks.

Ms. MacDiarmid said she won't shy away from new laws or regulations, but she is not ready to commit until the investigations are complete. "If it is clear something should have been done differently, we'll take action," she said, "whether that would need to be regulations or legislation or something else."

Mr. Sinclair will be rooting for a return to prescriptive regulations. "Guess what?" he said. "Red tape kept people alive."

At Burns Lake, he heard raw emotions from workers from the now-destroyed mill, anger that the government and WorkSafeBC have only stepped up enforcement around sawdust after the second explosion occurred.

"You could tell the pain they were feeling was enormous," Mr. Sinclair said. "They felt they had said that dust was a major issue and they were mad that two mills exploded before [government]cracked down on it."

Ms. Ellis, who has been up to her elbows in WorkSafeBC's regulatory minutia since 1999, says the red tape that was cut – 7 per cent in all – never touched sawmills specifically. In some cases, specific prescriptive regulations were replaced with performance-based standards. But the main example of that is in first aid requirements, and she now concedes that they went too far. In 2008, those regulations were restored.

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She maintains WorkSafeBC didn't let workers down when it complied with government's demand to cut red tape – and the proof is in the outcomes.

"Over the last decade, the injury rate has come down by 45 per cent," she said. "That means in a working year, 34,000 workers went home to their families, that didn't get injured, that didn't get hurt."

But she is quick to add, as her agency searches for answers on behalf of workers and families in Burns Lake and Prince George, that more needs to be done.


Snapshot of worker safety change

Shift to prevention, education started in 1990s

The agency responsible for worker safety in British Columbia has gone through upheaval over the past decade, with the number of inspections and regulations rising and falling like the tide. But the bigger cultural shift started in the 1990s, with a new focus on education and prevention.

Here's a snapshot of the results of those changes:

Injury rate (per 100 workers): 1991 - 5.6

2001 - 3.6

2011 - 2.4

Workplace inspection reports: 1991 - 50,386

2001 - 28,046

2011 - 39,153

Employer penalties imposed: 1991 - 486

2001 - 156

2011 - 349

Source: WorkSafeBC

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