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The Last Word
Burns Lake tragedy a safety wake-up call for the forest industry
By Tony Kryzanowski
The recent explosion, fire, fatalities and injuries at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C. are a grim reminder of the inherent dangers when working in the forest industry. Hopefully, it is a wake-up call on the need for constant vigilance by all to provide as safe an environment for workers as possible.
The exact cause of the unfortunate tragedy will likely emerge as investigations continue—I have no doubt that WorkSafeBC will conduct a thorough and complete investigation to get to the bottom of the cause of the explosion.
Another likely outcome will be new safety regulations to deal with specific circumstances that may have been unforeseen in the past, but could now represent a hazard when one considers, for example, how much drier beetle killed wood is. It’s possible that current safety regulations haven’t kept pace with the amount and consistency of wood dust created by processing certain volumes of beetle killed wood, which could require new and improved ventilation and monitoring protocols.
I think it’s important to note that on the whole, the industry has come a very long way in minimizing workplace injuries, with probably the biggest contributing factor being advances in mechanization. Compare, for example, the number of injuries that habitually occurred among bush workers before advances in mechanical logging. While not completely safe, the cab of a feller buncher, skidder or processor is a significantly safer working environment than operating a chainsaw exposed to the elements. A logging contractor recently told me that it is next to impossible now to even find a qualified and experienced chainsaw operator.
Sawmills are also a much safer work environment. Far fewer employees work around dangerous equipment in buildings or in the yard. Many sawmills have optimized log processing by implementing in-line computerized vision and conveyor systems as well as automatic sorting systems. At one time, manual sorters and the “green chain” were a common sight in sawmills.
It would be unfair, based on my experience visiting forest product manufacturing sites throughout Canada, to point to facilities operated by smaller independent companies as being more accident prone compared to those operated by larger companies. I have visited many independent operations that are absolute gems when it comes to workplace safety. Conversely, I have also seen facilities owned by large companies that in my opinion have unsafe work areas or procedures.
Overall, I think there is room for improvement in all operations and it tends to be in very specific areas or in certain accepted, yet dangerous, work habits. With that in mind, now might be a good time for all forest companies to conduct on-the-ground safety surveys to identify potential areas of concern.
Establishing safe work practices and a safe work environment really starts with individual workers and plant management. No hard hat, reflector, or steel-toed boot will ever substitute for a good attitude when it comes to safety. The attitude toward safety is where as a society I feel there really needs to be an adjustment. Let me provide a few examples of what I mean.
I recently had the good fortune to take a cruise and was sailing in a moderate gale force wind in the Caribbean Sea when the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground in Europe, with 16 deaths. At the time, I couldn’t help but think how I and many of my fellow cruise mates felt put out by the 15 to 20 minute safety drill given by the ship at the beginning of the cruise. I wondered how many of us even remembered what they were supposed to do in the event of an emergency since we were all more concerned about the ice in our margaritas melting than paying attention to the safety instructions. I’ve also noticed recently that hardly anyone even bothers to listen to the safety briefing given by flight attendants on airplanes anymore. Many passengers even block their ears with earphones during these briefings.
The Burns Lake mill explosion shows just how quickly a tragedy can strike, and how important—particularly in the workplace—it is for individuals to have proper safety training, and the ability to recognize potential hazards. They also need to have the support of management to feel free to speak up about situations that may represent an area where improvements are warranted.
Finger pointing, unless there is a clear case of negligence, is useless at this stage because it won’t change the events that occurred in Burns Lake on the night of January 20th. What we can all do as individuals is take a more serious attitude toward safety in our lives generally, and then maybe another Burns Lake tragedy might be avoided in future
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