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New sawmill safety tool
A new safety tool is now available to sawmills and wood processing plants, with the release of a sawdust audit standard that was developed by the major lumber manufacturers in B.C.
By Jim Stirling
Western Canadian sawmills and wood processing plants are taking advantage of a new tool to help prevent them from becoming the next horrific statistic.
The new tool is a sawdust audit standard that was jointly developed by 10 lumber manufacturers in British Columbia. It is being widely circulated and is freely available to mills and plants whose ownerships are concerned about the potential consequences of sawdust accumulations within their wood processing plants (the dust standard audit is available through the websites of the Council of Forest Industries—www.cofi.org—and the Steelworkers union—www.usw.ca—which represents many hourly workers in the sawmilling sector).
Development of the dust audit standard was a direct consequence of two sawmill explosions and fires in B.C. during the first four months of 2012. Between the incidents at Babine Forest Products, near Burns Lake, and Lakeland Mills in Prince George, four sawmill workers lost their lives, many others were seriously injured and an industry was traumatized.
Hampton Affiliates and the Sinclar Group, the mills’ respective owners, are rebuilding scaled down versions of the destroyed sawmills on the same sites near Burns Lake and in Prince George.
The official results of exhaustive studies into the explosions and fires by WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Safety Authority had not been made public at press time, pending review by Crown counsel for possible charges. However, dust accumulations are widely suspected as at least a contributing factor in the sawmill explosions.
It was with that focus that the group of 10 sawmill CEOs developed the dust audit standard, spearheaded by Canfor Corp., and West Fraser Mills. The other companies in the group are: Tolko; Interfor; Western Forest Products; Weyerhaeuser; Dunkley; Conifex; the Sinclar Group and Hampton Affiliates. The technical working group responsible for widely consulting, drafting and reviewing the audit standard was the Manufacturing Advisory Group (MAG), an already established group of sawmill safety experts augmented by Steelworkers’ representation.
FPInnovations was recruited for the scientific and research work behind the standard and efforts were made from early in the process to keep agencies like WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Safety Authority involved and informed of its progress. A similar focus on being inclusive continued with all sawmill operators, regardless of size, being advised of the dust audit standard’s availability.
“We sent a letter to all the companies operating a sawmill in B.C. advising them of the audit standard,” said Ken Higginbotham, project manager for the initiative. That’s about 150 to 175 sawmills. They’ve also kept the wood pellet manufacturing association, the pulp and paper associations and the wood remanufacturers’ group up to date with developments, he added. “We have had a very good response (to the audit standard) from WorkSafeBC; the B.C. Safety Authority; the Fire Commissioners’ Office and the Fire Investigation and Prevention Initiative,” continued Higginbotham.
“We’ve managed to incorporate ideas from the agencies. We feel it adds a layer of credibility. The thinking now is to get it out there so mills can consider using it.”
In addition to informing mills in B.C., the dust audit standard has been circulated to forest industry associations in other provinces—the Forest Products Association of Canada, for example—and it will likely be incorporated into safety programs at mills belonging to the group of 10 throughout western Canada. Canfor and West Fraser also anticipate using the audit standard in their U.S. operations, said Higginbotham.
“The audit standard is based on a string of questions that are really about whether the mill or company has the management systems to ensure that its housekeeping measures are in place to minimize risk. The standard involves pretty quantitative and qualitative assessments of risk,” he summarized. “We took the view that if you have accumulations of more than one eighth-of-an-inch of wood dust on any horizontal surface, you need to do something about it.” Sawdust build-ups vary with the levels of technology used in the mill and the wood volumes going through it per shift, added Higginbotham.
He said the sawmillers’ technical working group, MAG, continues its work on a couple of fronts. In close cooperation with its partners including WorkSafeBC, fire protection agencies and FPInnovations, MAG is developing training modules that can be used by both management and hourly mill workers to help mitigate risks. “We have a couple of modules out for review now and we anticipate early winter for them to be in use,” predicted Higginbotham. He said one of the positive byproducts of the group of 10 CEOs’ initiative has been development of much closer collaboration with regulators and other partners. The Steelworkers union has trust funds established both on the B.C. coast and in the interior dedicated to research, education and training in safety. Those funds are being used to pay for the development of the group’s training modules. “There is no question of the strong support from the Steelworkers for the development of safer sawmills for its workers,” he observed.
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