British Columbia

New review of worker safety underway, 7 years after deadly B.C. mill explosions

The union representing four workers who died in two sawmill explosions in 2012 says it hopes a new review of worker safety ordered by the provincial government will lead to overdue justice for survivors and families of the victims.

Union says previous investigations into 2 blasts that left 4 dead were 'botched'

The Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., was completely destroyed in an explosion and subsequent fire on Jan. 20, 2012. Two workers died and 19 others were injured. (cbc)

The union representing four workers who died in two British Columbia sawmill explosions in 2012 says it hopes a new review of worker safety ordered by the provincial government will lead to overdue justice for survivors and families of the victims.

Steve Hunt, district director for the United Steelworkers union, said previous inquiries into the explosions at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and Lakeland Mills in Prince George raised more questions than answers, and he hopes the new review prevents similar disasters from happening in the future.

"The best I can hope for out of this is we don't do a repeat ever in any industry, and we make an adjustment that makes a societal change. This one screams for that,'' Hunt said.

The B.C. Ministry of Labour says it has contracted Vancouver lawyer Lisa Helps to assess how WorkSafeBC implemented worker safety recommendations in the wake of the explosions, which, in total, killed four workers and injured 42.

Helps will also provide advice on potential legislative changes to improve worker safety in the province in her report to the attorney general, which is due mid-July.

The inquest into the Babine blast ruled a pair of workers died accidentally. A WorkSafeBC investigation revealed an accumulation of wood dust was a major factor in the disaster that also injured 19 other workers and flattened the mill. (CBC)

'Botched so badly'

Coroner's inquests were previously conducted into the deaths and the government commissioned two other reports in 2014 — the Dyble report and Macatee report. Together, they made recommendations directed at government and other agencies.

The inquest into the Babine blast ruled a pair of workers died accidentally. A WorkSafeBC investigation revealed an accumulation of wood dust was a major factor in the disaster, which also injured 19 other workers and flattened the mill.

But Hunt said he has been advocating for a further review and alleges WorkSafeBC, also known as the Workers' Compensation Board, mishandled its part of the investigation in a way that prevented criminal charges from being laid in either case.

"The two biggest investigations in the Workers' Compensation Board's history were both botched so badly that they couldn't prosecute either criminally or through regulation or through the act,'' he said. "They failed to take reasonable care to ensure people who might be subject to court proceeding were read their rights.''

Smoke can be seen rising from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. on Jan. 21, 2012. The explosion was blamed on dangerous levels of wood dust from milling trees that had been killed by mountain pine beetles. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

He accused WorkSafeBC of acting in the interests of industry instead of the workers it is supposed to represent, pointing to a document written by a WorkSafeBC manager in February 2012 — after the first explosion and before the second.

In it, the manager wrote that WorkSafeBC needed to raise awareness among its officers about wood dust following the Babine explosion and other related fires.

"Industry sensitivity to the issue given the recent event and limited clarity around what constitutes an explosion could lead to pushback if an enforcement strategy is pursued at this time,'' the document said.

Hunt said he wants to see the workers protected, more RCMP officers trained in workplace investigations and criminal charges laid for negligence in the incidents.

The best I can hope for out of this is we don't do a repeat ever in any industry ... This one screams for that.- Steve Hunt, District Director, United Steelworkers union

He said he still thinks about a meeting years ago he had with dozens of survivors in a room who shared their experiences with him.

"They'll never be the same, ever. Many have injuries they won't ever recover from, and it was awful. The system just simply failed them,'' he said.

WorkSafeBC did not immediately respond to Hunt's criticisms, but provided a statement saying the company is looking forward to working with Helps.

"We are always looking for ways to improve the health and safety of B.C. workplaces. We look forward to assisting the reviewer in her work,'' Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention services, said in an emailed statement.

It also pointed to the Macatee report on WorkSafeBC's review and action plan that found all of the 43 recommendations in the Dyble report had been implemented by March 1, 2016.

Smoke rises as police tape surrounds Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. on Jan. 21, 2012. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

In preparing her report, Helps will seek input from relevant stakeholders and staff in WorkSafeBC and the ministries of the attorney general, public safety and solicitor general, and labour, the provincial government said. She will also invite workers affected by the explosions, and their families, to share their perspectives on the issues under review.

After review, the attorney general will make public any recommendations related to improving processes or legislation.

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