British Columbia

'It took a tragedy to create this': But union supports recommendations in report on deadly sawmill explosions

The union representing mill employees affected by two B.C. sawmill explosions in 2012 supports the recommendations made in a recent report on the deadly incidents.

Report proposes a more streamlined investigative process, new ways for employees to report safety concerns

A large fire burns at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., on April 24, 2012. An explosion rocked the sawmill just before 10 p.m., setting off a fire that engulfed the facility. (Andrew Johnson/Canadian Press)

The union representing mill employees affected by two B.C. sawmill explosions in 2012 supports the recommendations made in a recent report on the deadly incidents.

A director with United Steelworkers says the report by lawyer Lisa Helps — which recommends a more streamlined investigative process and new ways for employees to report safety concerns — is a positive step forward for workers' rights.

"Unfortunately, it took four deaths and very serious injuries and damage to a lot of people at both Prince George and Burns Lake for the Workers' Compensation Board [also known as WorkSafeBC] and others to act," Steven Hunt told Carolina de Ryk, host of Daybreak North.

"Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to create this."

Helps, a Vancouver-based lawyer, was asked to assess how worker safety recommendations were implemented by the B.C. government and WorkSafeBC in the aftermath of the explosions.

A candlelight vigil was held in 2017 in memory of the two men killed at the explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Two people died and 19 were injured in an explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake in January 2012.

Three months later, two people died and 44 were injured in a similar explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George.

WorkSafeBC concluded the blasts were triggered by an unsafe buildup of sawdust.

According to Helps, an ombudsperson could assist workers, explain procedures and processes, and be able to provide a bridge to WorkSafeBC for workers' ongoing input into safety processes.

She recommended that workers who were affected or raised concerns around safety in the workplace have their voices recorded. 

Even though there was a WorkSafeBC investigation and coroner's jury report after the two explosions, mill workers were left out of the process, says Hunt. He says many of those workers are dealing with trauma. 

The fire at Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George on Apr. 24, 2012. (Andrew Johnson/The Canadian Press)

'Blowing the whistle'

Hunt says the report's recommendations call for the improvement of three areas of workers' rights: the right to refuse, the right to participate and the right to know. 

"Those rights are terribly underutilized," said Hunt.

He says the union called a WorkSafeBC confidential line to report concerns about a dangerous buildup of dust in their workspace.

WorkSafeBC turned the tape over to the workers' employer to listen to. Hunt says this should not happen, and it would not with an ombudsperson. 

"Workers oftentimes are not comfortable blowing the whistle ... and when the cycles in the resource industry are down, people are afraid for their jobs. I sometimes call it economic heroin. People go to work when they know it's unsafe and they rely on people that help like the Workers' Compensation Board."

People gather in 2017 for a candlelight vigil held in memory of the two men killed in the explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Work refusal

According to Helps' recommendations, if a worker refuses a job because of safety concerns, the workplace cannot assign someone else to do the job unless that person is familiar with it and knows the reason for the previous refusal.

"So, you just can't shut a job down for a short period of time and then assign somebody else ... which has been a chronic problem for years. So that recommendation is very helpful, I believe," Hunt says.

While the United Steelworkers union is pleased with the report recommendations, Hunt says there is more to be done. 

"I'll be more comfortable once the laws are put into place. We as workers are not done until all the laws are actually changed."

Listen to the full interview with Steven Hunt here:

It's been seven years since four men were killed in two sawmills explosions in Northern B.C., and the survivors of those blasts are still being impacted. 6:35

With files from Daybreak North and The Canadian Press

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