Industry practices that have destroyed forests may now be killing sawmill workers
By Roger Annis, April 25, 2012
Two days ago, an explosion and fire at the Lakelands Mills sawmill in Prince George, BC killed two employees. This follows by three months a fire at the Babine Wood Products sawmill in Burns Lake, BC that also killed two employees.
** Enclosed in this posting is a lengthy dossier enclosed below. It includes a Vancouver Sun article from July 3, 2012 showing that the British Columbia government agency responsible for worker safety knew for a long time of the looming dangers of wood dust in sawmills. An Aug 22 article shows the lengthy failure to act on reports of sawdust accumulations in the Lakelands Mills sawmill. The final article in the enclosed dossier reports that sawmill companies are acting pre-emptively to create a voluntary standard for dust levels in sawmills that has no legal authority nor binding compulsion on companies to abide by it.
According to CBC Radio news, there have been ten sawmill fires in British Columbia since 2008, an unprecedented number. Growing voices are pointing fingers at the rise in the milling of pine trees killed by the pine beetle infestation as the cause of the increased fires. An unprecedented infestation in recent years has destroyed the vast pine forests in the interior of British Columbia.
Seventy per cent of the lumber being processed at Lakelands was beetle-killed wood. Beetle-killed lumber is significantly drier than typical wood processed in the mills and therefore creates larger amounts of dust during its processing. Ventilation systems in the mills were designed or installed decades ago and do not take account of the changes in the wood being processed.
A leader of the union that represents sawmill workers in BC, Steve Hunt of the United Steelworkers, told CBC Radio that he cannot say if heightened amounts of wood dust in sawmills is causing the greater numbers of fires. He said that in recent years, sawmill companies have been cutting back on clean-up crews in the mills.
Keta Kosman, publisher of weekly industry newsletter Madison’s Lumber Reporter, told the Vancouver Sun yesterday she is concerned maintenance issues, largely resulting from five years of depressed markets and prices in the North American sawmilling industry, could be at the heart of several recent fires. “There’s been an unusual number of sawmill fires in the last few months and it’s not just here in B.C.,” Kosman said.
An extraordinary five-part article series in the Vancouver Sun last December detailed how the BC government is opening up the pine forests to unprecedented amounts of logging in order to process killed trees before they decompose. This is typical of the destructive, clear-cutting methods that prevail in the forest industry in Canada and have caused serious degradation to the natural resource, including, arguably, making the forests more vulnerable to fires and insect infestations. You can read that article series in a compilation on my blog.
The BC government is opening up to logging previously protected forests in the province to take account of the decline in wood supply caused by the pine beetle infestation. A dossier of nine articles on this phenomenon is located on my blog (here, below).
(You can listen to a 20-minute interview with Roger Annis on the subject of the sawmill explosions/fires and the situation in the trade unions in British Columbia that aired on Rank and File Radio on May 16, 2012:
News updates: On April 25, WorkSafeBC, the provincial government agency that is supposed to look after worker safety in the province, ordered the removal of all accumulated sawdust in sawmills across the province. For several years now, the agency and forest company owners have been dodging the role that dust is playing in sawmill explosions and fires.
A report in the Vancouver Sun of April 27 (below) explains that WorksafeBC has quietly discussed the heightened dangers of sawdust accumulation for several years. But since the Babine sawmill explosion in January, 2012 it has argued that the cause of the blast is unknown and it has yet to issue any report. Incredibly, the agency has never bothered to establish strict guidelines for what it would consider to be the safe levels of dust concentration. No wonder one writer to Global News in Prince George wrote, “We all know WorkSafeBC is in the pockets of the companies and cannot be trusted.”
In an interview on Vancouver CBC Radio news on April 26, a worker at the Babine Wood Products mill that exploded three months ago said the ten hour shifts in sawmills leave not enough time for daily clean up of accumulated dust. The ten hours shifts were part of concessionary collective agreement demands by the forest companies in 2003 and accepted by the woodworkers union of the day. Another worker wrote to Global News in Prince George on April 24: “The media should ask questions about these ten hour shifts that these companies implement…running a sawmill 20 hrs a day leaves very little time for proper maintenance and clean up especially in a sawmill where the logs are manufactured ..”
See an historical chart of the progression of the pine beetle infestation of the forest in British Columbia:
1. Sawmill explosion sparks inspections
By Christine Hinzmann, The Prince George Citizen, April 25, 2012
WorkSafeBC has initiated its own investigation into Monday’s deadly explosion and fire at Lakeland Mills as part of a provincewide order for precautionary inspections. “We are ordering every sawmill in the province of British Columbia to do a hazard identification, a risk assessment and a safety review and we’re asking them to focus on combustible dust, dust accumulation and potential ignition sources,” said Roberta Ellis, vice president of corporate services for WorksafeBC. “There has to be an ignition source for an explosion of this nature to occur.”
After the sawmill explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake this past January, WorkSafeBC officers visited sawmills in the province working under similar circumstances to address similar issues, Ellis said. It is not known at this time if Lakeland Mills or any other Prince George sawmill was one of those inspected, she added.
“After the explosion at the mill in Burns Lake we also did meet with industry representatives to discuss safety issues in sawmills,” said Ellis. She poured water on speculation that milling pine beetle-damaged wood contributed to the Lakeland and Babine fires. “While we recognize there are similarities between the explosions, dust was present as there is in all sawmills and they were working with beetle-infested wood, it’s too soon for us to speculate on the basis of the pine beetle wood being milled, and, as I said, British Columbia has been milling that wood for over a decade.”
WorkSafeBC’s priority is to find conclusive answers why both incidents happened. “There has been a great deal of concern about why these two particular mills would have suffered such intense and traumatic explosions given the overall circumstances within which sawmills operate in British Columbia,” said Elis. “Some of the conditions present in the Babine Mill were present in the Prince George mill. Some were not. Babine — it was the heart of a very, very cold winter.”
In the province’s history, Ellis said WorkSafeBC has never seen two saw mill explosions like this.
Once the orders to the sawmills have been issued, WorkSafeBC officers will follow up with every mill, Ellis said. “It is then in law the obligation of the employer to comply with the order and begin to conduct the hazard identification and risk effect,” she added. “Then our officers will be ensuring that they are in compliance with the order that we are issuing today.”
The tragic events in Prince George have resulted in calls for the release of information gathered to date in the investigation into the Burns Lake sawmill explosion that took place earlier this year. This investigation is ongoing, however the site has been returned to the employer; equipment that must be examined has been removed from the site and transferred to independent laboratories for testing and analysis and information and evidence gathered through witness statements is being analyzed.
“No preliminary findings into the Burns Lake investigation are available at this time and Worksafebc is not in a position to release information that might compromise the process,” said Ellis. “Investigators continue to examine fuel sources including combustible sawdust and gas as well as potential ignition sources.”
The site of the explosion in Prince George remains with the RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service. WorkSafeBC will commence its site investigation as soon as it is released by both agencies and it is safe for officers to access, which should be in a few days, said Ellis.
At present, WorkSafeBC does not have reasonable legal grounds to order sawmills closed. The agency will not hesitate to take such action should the circumstances warrant it.
“We recognize that there are similarities between the explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George — both are sawmills, dust was present in both, as in all sawmills, and both mills were working with beetleinfested wood,” said Ellis. “However, we cannot speculate, based on these similarities, as to the cause of these events.”
WorkSafeBC claims staff has been deployed to the area to assist the regional office in providing service to the injured workers and their families and the family of the worker that died as a result of the fire.
2. Wood dust suspected in B.C. sawmill blasts
Unusually dry timber from pine beetle infestation could create explosive dust
The second lumber mill explosion and fire in B.C. in four months is raising questions about the kind of wood that mills in the province are cutting and the amount of explosive dust that could be in the air inside the buildings. The Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George blew up in what witnesses described as “a ball of flame” Monday night, killing one man and injuring 24 more workers, nine of them with serious or critical injuries.
The blast was similar to one that killed two people and destroyed a mill in Burns Lake in January. The conclusions from investigations into the incidents are months away, but one expert suspects that dust particles suspended in the air inside the mills could be the culprit. And others point to the kind of wood the mills are working on.
“I was … fearful that there would be another occurrence of what happened in Burns Lake,” Industrial hygienist Neil McManus told CBC News. “There’s a lack of appreciation, it appears, among the general public about the potential for organic materials, when they’re finely powdered, to be able to explode.”
The provincial government has ordered the immediate inspection of dust levels in all B.C. sawmills.
“These explosions — two of them in such short order — are extraordinary,” said B.C. Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid. “There are people who’ve worked in this industry for over 30 years and have never seen an accident of this type.”
Both of the destroyed mills were cutting wood from trees killed by pine beetles, which is much dryer than timber from live trees and its dust particles can be more easily ignited. The probability of dust explosions in B.C. sawmills wasn’t much of an issue as recently as 10 years ago, but since then, the harvest of pine beetle timber has increased significantly. About 70 per cent of the lumber that Lakeland Mills in Prince George was cutting was from trees killed by pine beetle infestation.
“You can see increases in the harvest level anywhere from 60 per cent to 100 per cent more,” said Harry Nelson, an assistant forestry professor at the University of B.C. “I’d say, on average, mills have been harvesting and cutting around 70- to 80-per-cent pine over the last five or six years.”
Mills built decades ago were designed to handle wetter, green timber.
“Every mill in that area needs to be looked at through this lens,” said independent B.C. MLA Bob Simpson. “Do we have a build-up of combustible dust like we haven’t experienced before? If so, let’s deal with it.”
3. Sawdust ordered removed from B.C. mills
By Sunny Dhillon, Rob Mickleburgh and Ian Bailey, Globe and Mail, April 26, 2012
In an unprecedented, precautionary crackdown, safety officials are ordering every sawmill in B.C. to remove all accumulated sawdust from their premises, a factor cited as a possible trigger of two catastrophic mill explosions in the past three months. The edict, to be issued on Thursday by WorkSafeBC, comes after a devastating blast levelled the Lakeland Mills in Prince George on Monday night, killing two workers. In January, a sawmill exploded in Burns Lake, claiming two victims.
Investigators are focusing on high levels of sawdust from the cutting of wood killed by pine beetles as a possible trigger. Two WorkSafeBC inspection reports disclosed on Wednesday showed earlier concern over dust at the Lakeland Mills. One of the inspections took place in February, just two weeks after the Babine Forest Products Mill blew up in Burns Lake.
Concerning the new order, Roberta Ellis, vice-president of corporate services for the safety agency, said mills must look at all dust in their operations – accumulating on equipment and in the air. “Sawmills are dusty places,” Ms. Ellis said, adding that dust must be cleared away and the air ventilated.
Union leader Stephen Hunt said he is not aware of any previous safety order of such magnitude. “When there are still no definitive findings of what caused the first explosion, to come up with an order saying, ‘Get rid of all the dust,’ that’s erring on the side of safety, and we think it’s spectacular.”
Mr. Hunt, regional director of the United Steelworkers, which represents the sawmill employees, was told of the move at a hastily scheduled meeting with Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and union and forest industry representatives. He said the order includes removing sawdust from all species and age of wood, not just dead timber ravaged by the mountain pine beetle.
A WorkSafeBC report by officer Kim Hess on Feb . 9 referred to “accumulations of piles of wood dust in various areas of the [Lakeland] mill. … We reviewed the requirement to prevent the accumulation of hazardous amounts of wood dust.”
In 2009, an inspection report found that Lakeland had not been monitoring worker exposure to wood dust. “This is an item that should be re-evaluated due to the changes in productivity that has occurred over recent years, and the fact that the majority of the wood being processed is dry, beetle-killed pine,” the report said.
Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., said he was not aware of the February report until Wednesday, since the agency issued no order. He said the mill’s operations manager would have dealt with the matter. But he acknowledged that debris was cleaned away after the inspection and the company increased its clean-up crew to five from three workers, characterizing those actions as “a significant response.”
Mr. Hunt of the Steelworkers questioned why the safety inspector did not make an order. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t do that.” A WorkSafeBC representative could not be reached for comment on the reports.
Investigators are still working on their probe of the Burns Lake explosion, and have yet to gain access to the still-smouldering site of the Lakeland Mills conflagration. Meanwhile, forest workers and companies are worried about potentially dangerous conditions at other mills.
The blast that levelled the Babine operation in Burns Lake was the first time a sawmill had exploded in B.C. Now, it has happened twice in short order.
John Allan, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, said the ConflixTimber sawmill in Fort St. James temporarily ceased operations this week to clear out all possible hazards, including sawdust. “Quite a few others are also stepping up their clean-up of dust. Everyone wants to be careful,” Mr. Allan said.
On the union side, Mr. Hunt said he’d heard of one sawmill where workers began using air hoses on their own in an effort to remove dust. But that may not be the right thing to do, he added. “People are concerned, but going into a sawmill and blowing sawdust around because they think that’s the right thing to do may inadvertently do something to contribute to another disaster,” he said. “The real story is that something is happening in these mills that we have not seen before. We are at a critical time.”
4. Sawmill explosion warning dates to 2010
By Jonathan Fowlie, Vancouver Sun, April 27, 2012
WorkSafeBC was warning sawmill operators as early as 2010 that a scattering of dust “as thin as a dime” can be enough to lead to a serious explosion. “A layer of dust as thin as a dime dispersed throughout a room can create an explosion hazard,” read guidelines from WorkSafeBC, first issued April 27, 2010. Despite that warning, however, WorkSafeBC has never specifically established what constitutes an unsafe level of combustible dust.
WorkSafeBC regularly monitors dust levels in all B.C. mills to guard against respiratory problems for workers. And regulations do stipulate that if combustible dust collects in a building or structure “it must be safely removed before accumulation of the dust could cause a fire or explosion.” But nowhere does WorkSafeBC set out specific numbers for what levels of dust pose a risk of explosion.
“There’s no actual standard in the regulation on combustible dust,” WorkSafeBC vice-president Roberta Ellis said Thursday, adding the issue is very complex because risks fluctuate with temperature, ignition sources and a variety of other factors. “That’s something we’re going to have to work on,” she said.
Ellis said as a first step, WorkSafeBC on Thursday reissued its 2010 guide-lines – which deal with the location and construction of dust collectors – and also published a new set of general guidelines regarding combustible dust. “A dust explosion can cause catastrophic loss of life, injuries, and destruction of buildings,” said those new guidelines, which WorkSafeBC attached to an order it sent out Thurs-day calling for immediate cleanups at all B.C. mills.
“In many cases, employers and workers may be unaware of the potential for dust explosions, or fail to recognize the serious nature of dust explosion hazards,” the new guide-lines continued.
Ellis said the new document is meant to provide immediate resources for mill operators and WorkSafeBC inspectors. “What it’s done is pooled into one place the regulations around flammable air contaminants, the sections of the act that apply, the general requirements about safe workplaces,” she said.
“But it’s also given our officers, because these are instructions to our officers as well as to industry, some more information about our concerns regarding ventilation for flammable contaminants,” she added. “It points them to some things they can do in terms of hazard mitigation strategies.”
Ellis said WorkSafeBC will also work with a variety of experts in the weeks and months to come to determine if new regulations are needed. “That’s part of what we’re going to be looking at in terms of what about a standard for combustible dust?” she said.
“If our learning from these investigations, and from the stakeholders that we’re pulling together, are that a standard should be set, it would be WorkSafeBC [setting it] in the regulations.”
Ellis also said that WorkSafeBC plans to take the unusual step next week of issuing a preliminary report on the investigation into a January mill explosion in Burns Lake. She made it clear that the update will not offer any interim recommendations, or speculate on a possible cause.
Instead, Ellis said, WorkSafeBC investigators will release information on what they have ruled out in the investigation so far. “We believe that may be of some assistance to unions and to employers in terms of at least knowing what we’re not looking at, what we’ve at the moment ruled out,” she said.
In question period Thursday, New Democratic Party deputy forest critic Bill Routley pressed the government on why the investigation has taken so long. “Three months have passed since the Burns Lake tragedy and no finding has been publicly released. No warnings, no orders to set up safety inspections after the Burns Lake fire. Now we have the awful blast and fire at Prince George mill,” he said.
“Will this government commit to an expedited report on both the Burns Lake and Prince George mill fires, and will this government commit to long-term improved safety for millworkers?”
Minister of Labour Margaret MacDiarmid responded that WorkSafeBC is moving as swiftly as possible, and values accuracy above immediacy.
Ellis was more blunt. “I’m not apologetic for the length of time that the investigation has taken. It’s important that we get it right,” she said.
5. Government, workplace safety agency and union dismissed concerns following Burns Lake sawmill explosion in January 2012
6. Workers ‘on edge’ about returning to work
By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun, April 30, 2012
7. Mill officials say they were not warned of danger before deadly explosion
By Justine Hunter and Sunny Dhillon, Globe and Mail, May 2, 2012
8. U.S. lab helping BC to craft sawdust rules
By Sunny Dhillon, Globe and Mail, May 3, 2012
9. B.C. unions ask government to protect workers in factories
Two articles published on the BC Federationist (web zine), reporting on rallies on the occasion of the Day Of Mourning for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job, April 28, 2012:
* Prince George BC
* Burns Lake BC
10. Postscript I:
B.C. sawmills warned about dangers of dust before deadly explosions
The Vancouver Sun has published findings from thousands of pages of documents received from a freedom of information request for the records of Worksafe BC, the renamed Workers Compensation Board, concerning the dangers of explosions, fires, and respiratory disease caused by wood dust in sawmills. The documents cover the years 2007 to 2011 and they show at least 100 warnings issued to sawmill companies about the danger of wood dust in mills. The warnings treated, primarily, concerns about the deleterious consequences of inhaling dust.
From the article, “Forest companies, the United Steelworkers union and individual workers at the two mills that exploded have said the risk of wood dust explosions wasn’t widely known, but WorkSafeBC inspection reports show that multiple warnings were issued to a number of mills before the two deadly explosions.
From the article:
Forest companies, the United Steelworkers union and individual workers at the two mills that exploded have said the risk of wood dust explosions wasn’t widely known, but WorkSafeBC inspection reports show that multiple warnings were issued to a number of mills before the two deadly explosions.
United Steelworkers union safety specialist Ron Corbeil said it now appears there was enough information known — which also included warnings coming out of the United States — that more attention should have been paid to wood dust’s explosive potential.
“It’s really unfortunate it’s taken two mill explosions to really get British Columbia’s attention,” said Corbeil.
The union official is referring to dust explosions in the U.S. that killed 119 people and injured 718 between 1980 and 2005, outlined in a U.S. federal Chemical Safety Board report. In 2008, another 14 workers were killed in a dust explosion at a sugar refinery in Georgia.
WorkSafeBC was aware of the U.S. deaths, saying it sponsored a combustible dust workshop in 2010 because “it is also a concern in B.C. workplaces.”
Sawdust key factor in sawmill fires in past decade
Should have provided explosion warning: combustible dust expert
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, July 26, 2012 , page one
Sawdust, wood shavings and chips, which are suspected to have played a part in two recent deadly sawmill explosions, have also fuelled dozens of fires at B.C. sawmills over the past decade.
Sawdust was listed as the material which first caught fire in more than half of 89 sawmill fires in Interior B.C. between 2001 and 2011, according to B.C. Fire Commissioner incident reports obtained by The Vancouver Sun. It was ignited most often by sparks (52 per cent), followed by friction heat (25 per cent), hot objects and direct flame (each eight per cent).
The sources of the ignition included bearings, electric panels, welding equipment, cutting torches, wiring, general machinery and in one case a halogen lamp.
The explosive capacity of dust in the sawmills was noted in comments attached to the individual incident reports filed by local assistant fire commissioners, which were obtained under a provincial freedom of information request. However, the commissioner’s office, which is the senior fire authority in the province for fire safety and prevention, could not recall issuing any blanket warnings or cleanup recommendations.
The comments show there was at least one minor dust explosion, as well as separate incidents of a blown fuse that ignited dust, an electric short that caused sparks that ignited fine dust and an overheated motor that caused sparks that ignited sawdust.
The 89 incidents do not capture all sawmill fires in B.C.’s Interior between 2001 and 2011 because not all fires were reported to the fire commissioner’s office. The Sun’s request was also limited to companies where fires were previously reported publicly in the media.
The fact that sawdust was a major factor in these fires should have provided a warning of the potential danger of catastrophic dust explosions, said John Astad, a combustible dust consultant from Texas.
Forest companies, the United Steelworkers union, individual workers at the two mills that exploded and the province’s safety agency, WorkSafeBC, have all said the risk of wood dust explosions wasn’t widely known.
Astad said he believes industry and provincial regulators had been lulled into a false sense of security because the fires in the past had not killed people, and the fires often didn’t cause significant damage. The belief that “since nothing bad had happened, [nothing] bad can happen in the future” overshadows the fact wood dust can be an element in a chain reaction that can lead to catastrophic explosions, he said.
“Address the fires and you’ll minimize the probability and the severity of a secondary catastrophic explosion,” said Astad, who conducted a combustible dust workshop for WorkSafeBC in March 2010 and last month delivered several more public presentations in B.C.
That not only means addressing cleaning at sawmills but adding proper ventilation equipment, he noted.
Sawmills were ordered to clean up wood dust after the second deadly explosion on April 23 at Lakeland Mills in Prince George killed two workers. The first explosion Jan. 20 at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake also killed two workers.
B.C.’s Fire Commissioner officials said they believe they may have issued advisories about sawdust being an ignition risk before the fatal explosion earlier this year, but could not immediately provide any examples.
Kelly Gilday, the province’s deputy fire commissioner, acknowledged the incident reports from the local assistant fire commissioners are meant to provide the fire commissioner’s office with information to track trends.
But Gilday said because sawdust is a byproduct of the sawmilling process, it’s the responsibility of business owners to ensure the site is clean of sawdust. “Even if an inspector goes through a property once a year, there’s 364 other days for that material to accumulate,” he said.
United Steelworkers safety specialist Ron Corbeil said he’s concerned that not all sawmill fires are being reported to the fire commissioner. “Statistics can identify trends, and that’s when things are put into place to ensure we don’t have a catastrophe like we had twice,” said Corbeil.
There were three fire incident reports filed with the fire commissioner in the past decade for Lakeland Mills in Prince George.
In August 2004, a hot bearing threw sparks into sawdust and ignited wood piled up against a wall, and a fire was started in November 2006 by welding above an area housing wood shavings.
There was also a fire in February 2012 in Lakeland’s dust-filtering baghouse where the material first ignited could not be determined.
Sawmill worker Darryl Kennedy said, however, it was started by a portable halogen light that heated dust that ignited. Still, Kennedy said workers did not generally make any connection between previous fires and the explosive potential of wood dust.
Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group, which owns the mill, declined to comment on the fire history at Lakeland.
The fire incident reports also found:
— In May 2005 at Tolko’s Soda Creek sawmill in Williams Lake, wiring to an electrical motor had loosened and arced, igniting dust and sawdust in the room and creating a “minor” dust explosion.
— In July 2009 at West Fraser sawmill in Williams Lake, large fuses blew, igniting dust above panels. Fire damage was minimal.
— In October 2006 at Canfor’s Prince George Sawmill, an electric short of breakers caused sparks that ignited fine sawdust in the lumber edger. Damage was contained to electrical controls and catwalk.
— In August 2011 at Dollar Saver Lumber in Prince George, sparks from an overheated electrical motor ignited sawdust and hydraulic fluid. The interior walls of the compressor room were charred.
Mill warned multiple times before fatal blast
Inspection photos show dust buildup at Prince George facility
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, Aug 21, 2012
Five months before a deadly explosion at Lakeland Mills sawmill, photos show combustible wood dust built up on ledges, under a machine, and on hand railings, light fixtures and pipes for the water- sprinkler system. In several photos of the Prince George mill, obtained by The Vancouver Sun under a freedom of information request, the dust is so thick it is visible in the air as hazy, luminescent dots.
A five- year span of fire inspection reports, as well as the Nov. 29, 2011 photos, show Lakeland Mills was warned several times about combustible dust hazards before the April 23 explosion that killed two workers. Combustible dust is defined in the B. C. Fire Code as “dusts and particles ignitable and liable to produce an explosion.”
WorkSafeBC inspections of the mill, which have been previously reported, noted high levels of dust but keyed on the harm that wood dust could do to workers’ lungs. Inspection reports by Prince George Fire and Rescue between 2007 and 2012 warned Lakeland about the accumulation of wood dust three times.
In November 2011, fire officials cited Lakeland Mills for a “deficiency” under the B. C. Fire Code for not keeping building and machinery surfaces clean of accumulation of combustible dusts.
A followup letter dated a day after the inspection warned Lakeland Mills that parts of the mill had “excessive amounts of accumulated fine wood dust.”
Prince George Fire and Rescue — which has a duty to inspect public buildings, including factories, under B. C.’ s Fire Services Act — requested the mill develop and adopt a policy that describes “the procedure, frequency and documentation for the cleanup and removal of this combustible hazard.”
On March 19, 2012, months after a fatal explosion at a sawmill in Burns Lake, Lakeland Mills received yet another warning. Prince George Fire and Rescue Lieut. Steve Feeney noted in his inspection report the “unacceptable” amount of dust present during the 2011 inspection had been “significantly reduced.”
Nonetheless, the mill was again cited for being “deficient” in not keeping the building and machinery clean of combustible dust. The fire department repeated its request that Lakeland create a cleanup policy. An explosion and ensuing fire burnt Lakeland Mills to the ground April 23.
Prince George Fire and Rescue chief John Lane declined to answer questions about the inspection reports because the investigation into the explosion is still underway. “It really would be inappropriate for us to offer any specific comments,” said Lane.
However, in general, deficiencies identified during inspections are “certainly” orders. “They reflect the measures that are required for the business or the building owner to be in compliance with the fire code, and those orders are followed up until they are complied with,” he said.
Sinclar Group president Greg Stewart, which owns the majority of the mill, cautioned against reading too much into the inspection reports. Dust is a fact of life in mills, Stewart said. Therefore, an inspection immediately after a cleanup would find little dust while an inspection at the end of a shift could find more dust.
He said the mill had increased its cleaning crews to three workers from two in April. And Stewart pointed to the March fire code inspection report, saying it showed the mill was making improvements.
The Sun had to provide a copy of the inspection reports and photos to the lumber company because it no longer had them. The reports had burned up in the Lakeland Mills explosion and fire, said Stewart.
Lakeland Mills workers told The Sun they believe dust buildup was still a problem in the weeks before the explosion. Stewart said he couldn’t comment on the workers’ observations because he had no way of knowing what level of dust they were using as a comparison. “In addition to that, I don’t want to speculate that the dust was the cause of this incident,” he said.
Lakeland Mills workers said the wood dust problem had not improved in the weeks leading up to the deadly explosion. “It was still pretty bad,” said Allan Morin, a 37- year veteran worker whose hands and face were severely burned in explosion. “The sun would shine into the mill once in a while, and you could see the dust in the air,” he said.
Morin said he was only protected from receiving worse burns because he was sitting in the cab of his machine when the blast tore through the mill. He described hearing something like an electric zap just before the explosion. “It was like a loud ‘ zzzzz’ and all of a sudden the power went out, and then the fireball hit me.”
Morin said an incident that took place in the winter, several months before the explosion, now seems like a warning. A spark from a saw ignited wood dust, creating a small fireball, he said.
Lakeland Mills worker Lorne Hartford also said there was dust buildup in the weeks before the explosion. Hartford said the mill was shorthanded, so cleanup was neglected. “It got really bad,” he said.
The Prince George fire department called on Lakeland Mills to create a fire safety plan in September 2008, a request repeated in September 2010, November 2011 and March 2012.
The inspections record noted numerous other deficiencies. They included that exit lights need to be illuminated at all times when the building is occupied; fire extinguishers must be mounted on wall hangers and protected from dust; fire hoses and nozzles need to be inspected annually, and rated fire doors must be kept closed at all times.
WorkSafeBC has not directly linked the deadly explosions with wood dust, but after the explosion at Lakeland Mills ordered all sawmills in B. C. to clean up wood dust.
An explosion and fire at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake on Jan. 20 also killed two workers and seriously injured others. Dust samples have been collected at both mills by WorkSafeBC for explosive testing.
Government fire inspectors ignored mill before deadly explosion
Burns Lake mill slipped through regulatory cracks, hadn’t had a fire inspection in years
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, Aug 27, 2012
Fire inspections were not held at the Burns Lake mill that exploded and burned earlier this year, killing two workers. The Babine Forest Products Mill, which is on a northern B. C. first nation’s reserve, slipped through regulatory cracks. Federal, provincial and local fire inspection authorities all believed they were not responsible for enforcing fire safety standards at the sawmill.
As a result, the mill was not inspected under either the federal or provincial fire safety code for years before the deadly blast on Jan. 20, and possibly never in the mill’s existence. “This is not acceptable. These different agencies have to communicate and work together,” United Steelworkers safety specialist Ron Corbeil said after learning about the inspection vacuum.
Corbeil, whose union represents workers at the Burns Lake mill, said it may be time for an inquiry to determine who is responsible for inspecting mills such as this on first nation’s lands. “Ultimately, somebody has to be responsible. They can’t be finger pointing … continuously [ saying] that, ‘ Well, it’s not ours [ responsibility], it’s theirs,’ ” he said.
Both the National Fire Code of Canada and the B. C. Fire Code set standards for the prevention of fires and explosions in wood processing and woodworking facilities. B. C. fire commissioner Becky Denlinger said because the Babine Forest Products sawmill is on first nation reserve land, it falls under federal authority.
However, the federal government said Friday the sawmill does not fall under the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada fire protection program’s mandate to provide national fire code inspections for federal and first nation reserve buildings.
First nation band councils can request fire protection agreements through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to inspect some first nations’ band- operated buildings, such as schools and daycare centres, said the government in a brief email. But commercial and private businesses are not covered, added the government, which refused to provide an official for an interview.
Asked directly if the National Fire Code of Canada applied to the sawmill on first nation reserve land, the federal government refused to answer. “As the Hampton Affiliates sawmill [ Babine Forest Products] does not fall under the mandate of the labour fire protection program, we cannot provide any additional information,” another, unsigned, email from human resources and skills said.
The provincial fire commissioner helped with the investigation after the Jan. 20 explosion and fire, at the invitation of the RCMP, Denlinger said.
Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation chief Albert Gerow said the band does not provide any fire protection or safety inspection services to the sawmill, which sits on its land. He said he thought fire protection and inspections were being supplied by the Village of Burns Lake. He noted the municipality provides those services to band buildings and homes on its reserve.
However, Jim McBride, the Burns Lake fire department chief, said Babine Forest Products was outside of his jurisdiction and outside of the community’s fire protection area. “I’m not aware of anybody in the [ Burns Lake] fire service that has the expertise and knowledge to go through a large industrial site — whether it’s a sawmill or a chemical plant — without first enlisting the experts in the area,” he said. “I don’t have that expertise at my finger tips,” said McBride, the only paid member in the 20- person volunteer department.
The union representing federal fire protection inspectors has been raising the alarm about understaffing for some time. There are only five inspectors covering B. C., Alberta and the northern territories, half the land mass of Canada, noted Doug Marshall, president of the Union of National Employees.
He could not explain why the federal government decided not to inspect commercial facilities like sawmills for fire safety. “Logically, forgetting about federal and provincial jurisdiction, you’d think they’d find a way to have fire inspections for every building no matter what,” said Marshall. “We are talking about people’s lives.”
The Human Resources and Skills Development fire protection program is set to end in 2014, throwing responsibility back to individual government departments. This further clouds who would inspect buildings on first nation reserve land, Marshall said.
An investigation led by WorkSafeBC is trying to determine the cause of the catastrophic explosion at the sawmill in Burns Lake and another in April at Lakeland Mills in Prince George, which also killed two workers. While WorkSafeBC has not directly linked the explosions to wood dust, it is being investigated as a factor.
About 50 sawdust samples have been collected from the Burns lake mill to test for explosive capacity.
Prince George fire department inspection reports obtained by The Vancouver Sun for Lakeland Mills showed that sawmill had been warned about combustible wood dust levels before the deadly April explosion. WorkSafeBC had conducted inspections of both mills that noted high levels of dust but keyed on harm the wood dust could do to workers’ lungs, not risk of explosion.
Major producers to set sawmill dust safety standard
Audits will be carried out by independent third parties
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, October 17, 2012
Major forest companies are creating a third party-certified dust audit to increase safety at their sawmills in British Columbia after two fatal explosions earlier this year. The audit standard will be similar to those already in use by the B.C. forest industry to certify forest management practices as sustainable. The audits would be voluntary and have no force under provincial laws.
Sustainability audits are usually carried out by major accounting firms. At least one such firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has expressed an interest in carrying out the dust audits.
The new internal dust safety standard will cover areas such as housekeeping and the equipment used to reduce dust levels. There are 10 companies spearheading the initiative, including all the major lumber producers in the province: Canfor, West Fraser, Tolko, Interfor and Western Forest Products. “There was a very sincere determination on the part of these 10 companies to try to create a working environment that, at least insofar as sawmill dust is concerned, is as safe as it possibly could be,” said Ken Higginbotham, a spokesman for the group and a former Canfor executive.
The proactive move by industry’s largest players comes just as the provincial safety bodies are wrapping up their two explosion investigations, which could lead to tighter regulations. The B.C. government has already said it will close identified gaps in fire code inspections.
Although these 10 companies represent 70 per cent of B.C.’s lumber production, the proposed voluntary program would cover only about 50 of 170 sawmills in B.C. The group of 10 companies is asking other smaller producers to join in, but nothing had been agreed to yet, Higginbotham said.
The forest companies plan to complete a pilot of the audit at five mills by the end of November and hope to have it finalized early next year.
United Steelworkers Western Canada director Steve Hunt did not endorse the forest companies’ audit effort, saying these kind of industry practices can lead to industry self-regulation and confusion around safety responsibility. He stressed the audit standard is not enforceable by law.
Hunt added there’s already enough confusion about who is responsible for sawmill dust explosion safety with at least three government agencies involved: WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Safety Authority and the B.C. Fire Commissioner’s Office and local fire departments. He said all he’s seen from the agencies so far is keystone cop-like finger pointing, but no concrete solutions.
The 10 companies formed a dust mitigation group after two workers were killed in each of the explosions at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake on Jan. 19 and at Lakeland Mills in Prince George on April 23. Dozens of workers were also seriously injured, some with devastating burns.
Dust is being investigated as a factor in both explosions.
Although it’s unclear how much blame will be laid “at the foot of dust” when investigation results are released later this year, CEOs were spurred by concerns about wood dust raised by WorkSafeBC in communities and in news stories by The Vancouver Sun, Higginbotham said. “First and foremost, no CEO wants to have employees injured or killed,” he said.
Forest companies also wanted to be prepared, including providing information, for any new dust regulation agencies WorkSafeBC might introduce following the tragedy, said Higginbotham. Companies also wanted to ensure their mills are insurable, he said.
Several insurance companies — including Aon — are helping with the dust audit standard, Higginbotham said. The audit could also be used by pellet plants and the chip-handling front end of pulp mills, he added.
WorkSafeBC is aware of the industry initiative and is supportive, said WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Megan Johnston. “WorkSafeBC has had positive experience with industry-recognized practices in other areas, particularly in oil and gas,” said Johnston in an email.
Both the Sinclar Group, majority owner of Lakeland Mills, and Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affiliates, majority owner of Babine Forest Products, are part of the dust mitigation group. Also part of the group are Weyerhaeuser, Dunkley and Conifex.