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British Columbia work safety agency under fire after flawed sawmill blast investigation

17 January 2014

On January 16 British Columbia occupational health agency WorkSafeBC released its report into the fatal blast at the Babine Forest Products mill in January 2012. This followed the province’s legal authorities announcement last week they would not pursue charges against the company, in part due to the flawed nature of the WorkSafeBC investigation.

Canadian sawmill stock image
Canadian sawmill stock image

The January 2012 explosion killed two and injured a further 20 workers at the sawmill, situated in Burns Lake, BC, western Canada.

The agency's investigation left significant evidence inadmissible in court, BC’s criminal justice branch said, citing specifically that investigators failed to obtain search warrants or warn witnesses of their charter rights before taking statements. A number of charges recommended by WorkSafe were not considered by the justice authorities because of the inadmissibility of evidence.

Based on the remaining evidence, the agency still recommended four charges for violations of the Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act, but the justice authorities felt the company had a defence of due diligence, and there was no likelihood of conviction.

In an interview with CBC Radio, the WorkSafeBC investigations director Jeff Dolan defended his organisation’s approach to one of its largest-ever investigations – a 13-week effort. Dolan said the investigative techniques used by the agency have been in place for many years and had led to successful prosecutions in the past.

“It was conducted with the methodologies that have shown successful resolutions in the form of charges being laid 31 times – 24 convictions since 1996,” Jeff Dolan told CBC. Dolan said evidence was gathered as it has been collected “and accepted” for at least the past decade, but that now the agency was working with the justice authorities to make changes to ensure evidence in future was not compromised.

Although there will not be charges, the agency is weighing appropriate orders and penalties against the company.

The investigation did not definitively determine the cause of the fire but found the company knew it had an inadequate dust collection system, even after a similar explosion and fire almost a year earlier.

The February 2011 fire was also blamed on accumulated dust, as were another in early December and several smaller blazes leading up to the explosion. The company was cited for an occupational health and safety violation in December 2011 for failing to adequately reduce or control airborne wood dust.

"Prior to the incident, WorkSafeBC did not enforce the combustible dust provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation at the Babine sawmill," the report said, pointing out the violation order that was issued for excessive levels of airborne dust.

"As the employer, Babine was ultimately responsible to ensure that its operations complied with occupational health and safety legislation."

The company should have taken action to control wood dust, it said.

The company made a down payment on system improvements but the additional equipment required an electrical upgrade. Preliminary work had begun but rather than reduce production while it was done, the mill actually increased production.

The mill had an ineffective inspection and maintenance system and inadequate supervision, the investigators found.

Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour, said the controversy has shaken confidence in the provincial agency. It prompted Premier Christy Clark to appoint deputy minister John Dyble to look into the case.

"When I have the facts, I'll be in a position to make a decision on what happens next," she said following a speech in Vancouver.

A few months after the Babine explosion, an explosion at the Lakeland mill in Prince George, BC, also killed two workers and injured 22. Next month, the agency is submitting a report on this incident. The two explosions raised the alarm about beetle-kill timber and led to an inspection campaign in the province’s mills.

Owners Hampton Affiliates have rebuilt the Babine Forest Products mill and it is expected to return to full capacity production next month.

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