A new report on B.C.’s fatal sawmill explosions provides several recommendations on how to strengthen investigations to ensure those responsible for workplace incidents are held accountable.
Two people died and 19 were injured in an explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake on Jan. 20, 2012. Three months later, on April 24, two people died and 44 were injured in a similar explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George.
Both explosions were determined to have been triggered by accumulated wood dust from high-volume milling of dry trees killed by mountain pine beetle infestation.
The B.C. government hired Vancouver lawyer Lisa Helps earlier this year to assess both government and WorkSafeBC’s progress in implementing recommendations stemming from the past reports. She was also tasked with making recommendations for further actions to strengthen investigations.
Helps is recommending that WorkSafeBC restructure its fatal and serious incident investigation team from two teams to one to improve efficiency and timelines. Other key recommendations include:
– The B.C. government should amend its occupational health and safety regulations to strengthen worker protections around the right to refuse unsafe work;
– The B.C. government should amend the Workers Compensation Act to include search and seizure authority. Currently WorkSafeBC investigators must apply for a search warrant under the Offence Act.
John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes, said the report is a step in the right direction.
“Workers and families want answers. If these recommendations can help provide those kind of answers should there ever be another tragedy like this again, I know those impacted would be better served.”
Rustad said he, like many others, wondered why the investigation into the explosion in Burns Lake took so long, and why so many people had unanswered questions.
“Could things have been done better? I’m not qualified to answer that question. But from my perspective, there was a lot of frustration, anxiety, speculation and worry that happened across the province as people wanted answers. Better communications about what was happening and how things were progressing could have helped.”
Reading the B.C. government’s latest independent review also brought back painful memories and sorrow, Rustad said.
“A flood of memories came back to me about that tragic accident at Babine Forest Products,” Rustad said. “I think any steps that helps to prevent such a tragedy from happening again are good.”
Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Lumber, which owns Babine Forest Products, said the company had no comments on the new report.
Burns Lake Mayor Dolores Funk also chose not to comment as she didn’t live in Burns Lake at the time of the explosion.
Lakes District News also reached out to Lake Babine Nation’s Acting Chief Derek MacDonald but did not receive a response by press time.
Ralph Eastman, a spokesperson for WorkSafeBC, said the agency has worked closely with Helps and is currently reviewing the report’s recommendations.
—With files from Tom Fletcher