WorkSafe BC (WSBC) and BC Safety Authority (BCSA) released their reports regarding the tragic accident that occurred on Jan. 20, 2012 at our Babine sawmill in Burns Lake. The photos and narratives are painful reminders of the suffering that our employees, families and the community had to live through at the time and are still dealing with today. We have delayed responding to the reports out of respect for the two year anniversary of those who died or were injured. We also thought it appropriate to take the time to carefully review and digest the contents of the reports.
We agree with many of the recommendations to improve sawmill safety but we disagree with many of the conclusions in both reports. Many of the observations and conclusions in the WSBC report are at odds with those reached in the clear statement from Crown counsel, a body that was entirely independent from the accident because the Crown had no responsibility to inspect sawmills to ensure worker safety.
We believe the underlying cause of the explosions at our mill was fine sawdust from beetle-kill wood. Since Jan. 20, 2012 we have learned from studies undertaken by industry groups about the explosivity of fine wood dust. Along with the rest of the sawmilling industry in B.C., Babine has learned that drier and finer sawdust from beetle-kill wood can be a highly explosive fuel, much more so than sawdust from green timber. To our knowledge, prior to Jan. 20, 2012, no one in the sawmilling industry knew this fact, and no representative of WSBC had expressed that fact to the industry, nor had Babine or any other sawmill in B.C. received a warning related to combustible sawdust from any regulator. As Crown Counsel noted, when WSBC tested dust levels in the Babine mill in the fall of 2011 [at Babine’s request] WSBC, ‘raised no concern that dust levels in the Babine mill posed a risk of a dust explosion.’
The machinery in the Babine sawmill was of a type and configuration that is common to sawmills in B.C. As mentioned in both the WSBC and BCSA reports, Babine had internal processes to try and reduce the wood dust present in the sawmill and those efforts were actually increasing in the two years prior to the accident. Crown counsel also remarked that wood dust conditions in the mill in the weeks leading up to the accident ‘were as good or better than they had been since the mill started processing beetle-kill wood” and that a WSBC officer ‘who regularly inspected Babine and other sawmills in the area reported that Babine’s dust conditions were about the same as those in the other regional mills.’
Crown counsel did not pursue offences against Babine because the Crown concluded that Babine could establish that the company had exercised due diligence in managing the risks that were foreseeable. Babine did not foresee the explosive risks of fine wood dust and, as confirmed by Crown counsel, there is no evidence that ‘Babine knew or ought reasonably to have known of the full extent of the hazards of combustible sawdust.’
What happened at Babine was a tragic accident, for which we will always be sorry. Most accidents are preventable when viewed with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge gained after the fact. Had Babine foreseen the hazard, the company would have taken immediate steps to address the risk, and never have exposed our employees to that risk in operating the facility.
The new Babine sawmill is starting up soon. We are committed to safety in the start-up process, especially as we deal with the reminders of what happened two years ago. We are proud of our employees who are giving us another chance to provide a safe, competitive business that will benefit everyone in the Burns Lake community.
Babine has now been notified that a coroner’s inquest is being ordered. Babine has already worked hard to incorporate the lessons learned from this tragedy. Consistent with industry research conducted since the accident, and directives published by BCSA in May 2013, Babine is installing state-of-the-art equipment and systems to collect sawdust at machine sources, as well as constructing a building and floor plans designed to facilitate clean-up and reduce areas where sawdust can accumulate. However, we look forward to learning anything else our industry can do to enhance safety and prevent future accidents.
Babine also learned on Jan. 21, 2014 that an insurance company responsible for coverage for the Babine mill has commenced a claim in B.C. Supreme Court in the name of Babine Forest Products Ltd., against a third party. While we had no previous knowledge of this claim, we understand that an insurer has the right to make a subrogated claim against another party, and to use the name of the insured when doing so, and that is apparently what has occurred.