WorkSafe report calls for better protection of BC workers

More inspections and a wider array of penalties for problem employers needed.

VANCOUVER — The BC government is pledging to overhaul the way workplace accidents are investigated, particularly those that could lead to criminal prosecutions, after botched reviews of two fatal sawmill explosions prevented the Crown from laying charges.

The province released a report July 15 that examined the specific risks associated with sawmill dust and how WorkSafeBC, the province’s occupational health and safety regulator, investigates workplace injuries and fatalities.

The WorkSafe report has more than 40 recommendations, including the introduction of a system in which an investigation that could trigger a criminal prosecution would be handed off to a specialized team to work with prosecutors and police to ensure the case could proceed to court.

The report, which the government said would be fully adopted, also calls for increased inspections and a wider array of penalties that could be handed out to problem employers.

Earlier this year, Crown prosecutors announced there would be no charges laid in connection with two fatal mill explosions that happened months apart in 2012, each killing two workers. The blasts – first in Burns Lake and the second in Prince George – have both been linked to the presence of fine dust particles from dry, pine beetle-infested wood.

In each case, the Crown declined to approve charges in part because of concerns that evidence collected by WorkSafeBC wouldn’t be admissible in court.

The report notes that WorkSafeBC has a range of special powers, such as warantless seizures, that are designed to allow it to determine the cause of an accident but the evidence wouldn’t stand up in court.

To avoid that conflict, the report states the agency department that handles injury or death investigations should be split in two.

If investigators determine the case might lead to a criminal prosecution,it would be handed off to a separate team that would start over, obtaining warrants and warning employers of their charter rights. The report said there would be an “ethical wall” between the two teams, which wouldn’t have access to each other’s work.

The teams would work directly with prosecutors from the criminal justice branch, the report said, and a special constable would be assigned to the teams to co-ordinate with police.

“It is absolutely essential that once there is a recognition that there is potential for prosecution, the case begins from that point,” Bond told a news conference in Vancouver.

The report also recommends implementing a range of new measures to target employers, or even workers, found to be violating occupational health and safety regulations.

Those include the introduction of tickets and citations, with consequences ranging from warnings to fines; expanding the scenarios in which stop-work orders can be issued; and changing the law to prevent employers from declaring bankruptcy to get out of paying financial penalties.

The explosions at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake and the Lakeland Mill in Prince George have been linked to combustible dust.

While investigations suggested the explosions were preventable, Crown prosecutors said both mills had taken steps to mitigate the buildup of dust.

The explosions prompted the government to order increased inspections to ensure mills were taking steps to control dust.

Bond said the latest phase of inspections found 84% of sawmills tested were in compliance, up from 58% during the previous round. Other manufacturing operations, such as pellet mills, had a far lower compliance rate of 40%.

Bond said sawmills that were cited during those inspections typically had dust build up in small, localized areas, not enough that it could trigger a massive explosion.

“How I wish I could promise it would never happen again – none of us can make that promise,” said Bond.

The Opposition NDP and relatives of some of the victims have called for a public inquiry to examine why the mills exploded and what went wrong with the investigations.

Bond said those questions have been answered through a series of reports that have been released since the two explosions, and she noted the BC Coroners Service has announced inquests into both explosions, the details of which are still being worked out.

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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