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By Jim Stirling
Aculture of increased safety is slowly emerging in British Columbia’s sawmilling industry.
The development is a child of tragedy. Fine sawdust-induced explosions and fires—three months apart—at two separate sawmills in central B.C. killed four men, injured dozens more and shocked an industry.
The 2012 horrors at Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake and Lakeland Mills in Prince George demanded and received an immediate reaction from the forest industry. A result, four years later, is the recognition that workers have the right to a safe workplace in practice as well as in theory.
“I think hourly employees and management see this. Yes, production is important but so is safety,” says Ken Higginbotham, Manufacturers Advisory Group (MAG) project manager.
The MAG was formed in 2009 as an ad hoc group drawn from about a dozen of B.C.’s major forest companies. Its members shared best practices in forest safety issues. When then Canfor president Don Kayne and West Fraser chairman Hank Ketcham held an emergency meeting after the Lakeland explosion, they looked to the MAG as a ready-made vehicle of executives familiar with each other to define an effective and practical response to the sawmill sawdust issue.
The role of sawdust as an explosion risk trigger—especially when in its finest granular form—was clinically analyzed through FPInnovations, the forest industry research institute. Working from the FPInnovations’ findings, the CEO task force through MAG and its other forest industry partners developed an audit standard around the management of combustible dust. The audit was subsequently made available to all sizes of wood product manufacturing plants to use as they deemed appropriate.
The formalization of the MAG under the direction of the CEO task force continued in April 2015, when the group came under the wing of the B.C. Forest Safety Council. The Canadian Pellet Association is also connected now to the B.C. Forest Safety Council.
“We’re in our early days, but the MAG gets very good support from the forest safety council,” says Higginbotham.
The determination to make B.C.’s sawmills safer is evident in other ways. Agencies like regulator WorkSafeBC conduct more mill inspections for sawdust management. Knowing more about the properties of combustible sawdust has accelerated development of machines and methods to more effectively remove the material from the work environment. Equipment manufacturers have been quick to supply the means to meet mill owners’ goals.
The investment in dollar terms alone has been considerable. West Fraser and Canfor, the two largest sawmill operators in B.C., estimate they’ve each invested around $50 million on managing combustible dust within their respective operations.
More powerful bag houses, 20 metres high, have become regular features of a modern sawmill’s skyline. Rotating bags within the towers filter dust particles sucked out from around machine centres and conveying systems through an elaborate collection of pipes and ducts like a giant vacuum system. Sawmills have become much safer places, with dust accumulations sharply reduced and potential dust ignition sources like lights and electrical equipment moved or contained. The air is cleaner and clearer as a result.
Sinclar Enterprises estimates the dust control improvement factor at its rebuilt Lakeland sawmill in Prince George at more than seven times the mill it replaced. The new Lakeland mill, with the advantage of literally being built from the ground up, is a showcase of safety first features. This includes attention to the small details, like eliminating level surfaces where dust can accumulate.
More sawmill workers have a heightened awareness—through training—of sawdusts’ potential volatility: it was, after all, four of their fellow workers who died on the job at Babine and Lakeland.
Separate coroner’s inquests were held into the Babine and Lakeland deaths. One of the 33 recommendations from the coroner’s jury at the Lakeland inquest was for WorkSafeBC to establish mandatory training and education for a mill’s health and safety committee members. Another jury recommendation instructs mills to report “near miss” incidents to WorkSafeBC, rather than just those incidents resulting in time loss injuries. Some mills have created new jobs on the mill floor where sawdust monitoring and control is a major part of the responsibilities.
The cumulative effect of all these initiatives is solid progress on managing combustible dust in B.C.’s sawmills and wood processing plants. The situation is reflected in figures obtained from WorkSafeBC by the Vancouver Sun newspaper through a freedom for information request. WorkSafeBC inspections of more than 100 sawmills and a dozen wood pellet manufacturing plants in B.C. during 2015 resulted in no citations for dust accumulations considered a risk for fire or explosion.
However, WorkSafeBC inspectors did issue orders for improvements to be implemented for six mills’ dust control programs. In contrast, many more mills had been cited for unacceptable wood dust levels during WorkSafeBC’s previous rounds of inspections in 2013 and 2014.
Hourly sawmill workers are in the front line.”Yes, we have made significant progress curtailing dust and shavings in our sawmills,” agrees Frank Everitt, president of Local 1-424 of the Steelworkers Union, the union representing them and a participant in the MAG. “But we have to continue the battle to get as much done as possible.”
Everitt notes dust mitigation issues are routinely on the agendas of in-mill safety meetings. “We try to emphasize the need to stay vigilant,” he adds.
The MAG’s Ken Higginbotham concurs and says there have been positive signs the safety focus is being maintained. “In the last four years, I’ve been impressed with the consistency of attention.” He cites the continued personal involvement of the forest company CEOs. When the MAG and the forest safety council were discussing their new working relationship, the idea of appointing senior members of the mills’ management teams to serve on MAG was broached. “To a person, the CEOs said ‘No’. The commitment from the top remains.”
The MAG has become more than just a sharer of good safety practices.
The group is currently also investigating other ways to better safeguard sawmills. The work involves anything that relates to the safeguarding issue from hand railings in mills to lock out procedures and requirements surrounding dealing safely with jam-ups in planer mill operations, says Higginbotham. “It appears to me, there is more of a culture in sawmills today about safety generally.”
Combustible dust presents a serious workplace hazard whether a manufacturing facility produces wood dust or many other types of dust, says WorkSafeBC.
If the dust is disturbed, enough dust becomes airborne and if a source of ignition is present, then the dust may explode. Uncontrolled cleaning activities may also generate a dust cloud that could explode. Employers must manage dust so that it does not present a risk of fire and explosion, says WorkSafe BC.
The safety organization offers resources which make up an online toolbox designed to help workers, supervisors and employers meet the legal duties outlined in WorkSafeBC policy and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation. This toolbox also contains information, training tools and templates that can be used to develop policies and practices to deal with combustible dust hazards in a workplace. The toolbox is available online at www2.worksafebc.com
Among the areas covered:
The reverberations from explosions and fires that killed four B.C. sawmill workers in 2012 continue to resonate.
Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie lost their lives at the Babine Forest Products’ sawmill near Burns Lake. About three months later, Glenn Roche and Alan Little died from their injuries in a similar explosion and fire at Lakeland Mills in Prince George. Dozens of other workers on shift at the time of both incidents were injured. No one in the industry was left unaffected. Many have been looking for answers and accountability since 2012, including the families of the dead and injured workers.
The provincial Liberal government has rejected calls for a public inquiry into the Babine and Lakeland cases. The Steelworkers union, which represents hourly sawmill workers, has collected a petition with about 20,000 signatures on it so far urging the government to change its mind about a public inquiry. Separate coroners’ inquests into the mill disasters last year resulted in accidental death verdicts, the only option available. Earlier, the Crown investigated the mill files and decided against recommending charges related to either incident.
Early in 2016, 10 people—including mill workers and families of the deceased in the two incidents—launched a class action suit against WorkSafeBC in B.C. Supreme Court. WorkSafeBC denied the claims made in the suit in its response. The regulatory agency maintained a class action suit is not permitted under its regulations, and says a two year time limit for claims has expired.
WorkSafeBC has levied fines against the owners of Babine and Lakeland sawmills related to the explosions and fires. Both companies have appealed the fines. Insurance issues related to the explosions and fires are also before the courts. None of the claims have been proven in court.
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