Babine Forest Products Ltd. (BFP) has been fined a record $1.01 million by Worksafe BC in connection with the deadly Jan. 20, 2012 explosion and fire that killed two workers and injured 20 others at the company’s sawmill.
The $1,011,639.62 levy, the largest of its kind ever issued by B.C.’s safety watchdog, consists of a $97,500 administrative penalty and a claims cost charge of $914,139.62. The monies, if collected, will go into Worksafe BC’s accident fund.
Imposed under section 196 of the Workers Compensation Act, the administrative penalty represents a $75,000 ‘Category A’ base charge that has been increased by 30 per cent because investigating officers concluded that safety violations found during the course of their investigation into the fatal fire at BFP “merit an upward variation.”
The claims cost levy, meanwhile, is being charged against the company under section 73 (1) of the act. Section 73 allows Worksafe BC to collect compensation from an employer when (in the Workers’ Compensation Board of B.C.’s opinion) a compensable workplace accident was substantially caused by “the gross negligence of an employer, the failure of an employer to adopt reasonable means for the prevention of injuries, death, or occupational diseases, or the failure of an employer to comply with the orders or directions of the board, or with the regulations made under Part 3 of this act.”
The claims cost levy does not represent the total cost of claims paid by Worksafe BC to the families of those killed or injured in the 2012 accident. Worksafe BC officials say that $5,172,433.90 in total claims had been paid as of the date of investigating officer’s decision.
“The dollar value of a penalty or levy does not and cannot reflect the loss of lives and the pain and suffering of workers and families,” Worksafe BC stressed in its April 3 statement.
Worksafe BC officials declined to comment further on the matter for fear of compromising the integrity of ongoing legal process and the rights of all parties. They did state, however, that BFP has been found “in violation of the Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health & Safety Regulation.”
Details of Worksafe BC’s findings are contained within a report issued to BFP on Jan. 21 of this year. In that report, Worksafe BC concludes that the fatal 2012 accident was likely caused by a build-up of wood dust that caught fire as a result of friction associated with mill equipment.
“All the components for a wood dust explosion existed,” states the report. “Wood dust – the fuel – was dispersed in the air. Near the ignition source was a containment zone. Oxygen was present in the air. The wood dust that was dispersed in the air within the Babine sawmill was of sufficient concentration to explode.”
The incident investigation report indicates that five underlying factors – ineffective wood dust control measures, an ineffective inspection and maintenance system, cold, dry weather conditions, waste conveyor configurations, and inadequate supervision of clean-up and maintenance staff – were also contributing factors in the deadly accident.
Worksafe BC’s incident investigation report suggests that while the sawmill owner had made some effort to improve its dust management system prior to the fire, it didn’t do enough.
“Effective actions should have been taken to control the airborne dispersal of wood dust as well as the excessive accumulations on floors and surfaces,” the report continues. “Such actions might have prevented this accident.”
At approximately 8:07 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2012, a large fireball burst through the roof of the northeast side of BFP’s mill at the east end of Burns Lake. The explosion, which was heard by homeowners several kilometers away, traveled east to west through the mill’s operating and basement levels. Fire subsequently spread throughout the premises, destroying them.
The Babine sawmill was a joint venture between U.S. firm Hampton Affiliates and the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation. The mill has since been rebuilt, and resumed operations earlier this year with state-of-the-art dust collection equipment.