United Steelworkers calls for public inquiry

WorkSafeBC was concerned with potential industry pushback.

The United Steelworkers (USW) is accusing WorkSafeBC of not prioritizing the safety of workers after the explosion that killed two employees at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake.

The accusation came after USW obtained a document through a freedom of information request which stated WorkSafeBC was concerned that an enforcement strategy to address wood dust in sawmills would lead to industry pushback.

Written 38 days after the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion at Babine Forest Products, the memo stated that although the cause of the blast had not yet been determined, wood dust was being considered as a potential factor.

In the memo, Barry Nakahara, WorkSafeBC’s Prevention Manager for the Interior North Region, said there had been at least two other explosions in wood products production plants over the previous few years.

Nakahara said in the memo that this would be a “timely opportunity” to raise awareness around the issue of wood dust and to bring attention to this hazard across the industry. However, he wrote, “Industry insensitivity to the issue given the recent event and limited clarity around what constitutes an explosion could lead to push back if an enforcement strategy is pursued at this time.”

Approximately two months after the memo was issued, Lakeland Sawmills in Prince George was destroyed in a similar blast, killing two workers and leaving over 20 others injured.

Stephen Hunt, USW Director for Western Canada, says this internal document clearly demonstrates that WorkSafeBC was more concerned about pushback from industry CEOs than the health and safety of workers.

“If this does not call for a public inquiry, I don’t know what does,” says Hunt. “Premier Christy Clark made a promise to the families who lost loved ones in these explosions that there would be justice and answers forthcoming. To date, there has been neither.”

In addition, USW claims WorkSafeBC provided a different version of Nakahara’s memo during the Lakeland inquest – a version that did not include the statement regarding industry sensitivity and pushback. Nakahara later called the memo presented during the Lakeland inquest “an earlier version.”

“WorkSafeBC should be ashamed of the lengths it went to cover up this internal document from the public,” said Hunt. “They are a public agency responsible for worker safety in British Columbia, but their behaviour has been secretive and their priorities have been skewed.”

WorkSafeBC spokesperson Scott McCloy said USW fundamentally misinterpreted an internal memo from a regional manager to his officers and left the impression that WorkSafeBC was soft on enforcement with wood manufacturing employers in early 2012.

McCloy said Nakahara’s comment about “industry pushback” in the memo included both employers and workers. He went on to say that, at the end of February 2012, WorkSafeBC did not have any firm information on which to base an enforcement initiative with sawmills, which was the point of the memo.

“At of the end of February 2012, WorkSafeBC did not definitively know the causes of the Babine explosion; what we had at that point were indications that combustible dust may have been a factor in the explosion at Babine Forest Products, which was relayed to our staff, industry and labour representatives as soon as possible.”

“Employers as well as labour stakeholders rightly expect to understand what hazards an inspection initiative would be addressing; as of Feb. 27, 2012, this was still not clear and this is reflected in Nakahara’s brief comment,” said McCloy.

In addition, McCloy says Nakahara spoke to the matter during the Lakeland inquest, but USW’s counsel left the inquest prior to Nakahara’s appearance on the stand.

“This information was all fully explored during the Lakeland and Babine inquests,” said McCloy. “WorkSafeBC participated completely and transparently in the process providing full disclosure of information to the B.C. Coroners Service.”

“It is mystifying to WorkSafeBC why the USW would choose to raise it [this memo] again now, particularly with an incorrect interpretation.”