Warning second BC sawmill could blow, but no preventative steps

Excessive sawdust buildup observed before Lakeland mill exploded killing workers.

April 17, 2014   by CANADIAN PRESS

VANCOUVER — Shortly after a bustling sawmill was flattened by fire in northern BC, a concerned worker at another operation phoned the province’s safety watchdog with fears that his workplace would meet a similar fate.

The prediction came true three months later when a gigantic blast shot through the corridors of Lakeland Mills in Prince George, setting it ablaze and toppling walls onto workers eating lunch.

WorkSafeBC included the anonymous call in its investigative report into the fatal April 23, 2012 explosion, along with other details foreshadowing the catastrophe that killed workers and injured 22 others.

“The caller advised that he was a Lakeland employee and that he had observed excessive sawdust buildup on horizontal surfaces in the mill,” said the report, which was released online this week and concluded the tragedy was preventable.

In particular, the caller was concerned about the plant “turning into the next Burns Lake sawmill,” the report said.

In January, just two weeks earlier, the community to the west was devastated by the deaths of two workers and injuries to 19 more when Babine Forest Products was levelled by a fiery explosion.

According to its report, WorkSafeBC dispatched an officer to the Prince George sawmill on Feb. 6, 2012, three days after the call. He found there was dust accumulation in various areas of the mill, though noting airborne dust concentration was below exposure limits. He spoke with mill and workers’ representatives about the hazardous wood dust but did not issue any violation orders.

The report was released only after BC’s Criminal Justice Branch announced Monday that it would not be laying any charges due to the low likelihood of convictions. The decision was in part based on findings of the completed WorkSafeBC investigation, which was forwarded to the Crown on Feb. 20.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond recently met with the agency’s board and appointed an administrator to reform its investigation regime.

Greg Stewart, president of Lakeland Mills Ltd., said he’ll ensure the company addresses all known safety concerns and hazards going forward.

A spokesman for WorkSafeBC said the agency wouldn’t be commenting while it looks into whether it will impose an administrative penalty against the company.

The report, finalized in late January, pinpointed wood dust as the major fuel for the explosion and fire.

It said the blast was ignited by heat that soared up to 577 degrees C when mechanical parts in a fan failed. Airborne dust caught fire, causing a primary explosion that triggered more explosions that ripped through the operating level of the mill and the lunchroom. More workers, on break in the basement level, were blown through a wall before the building caught fire and burned to the ground.

Lakeland had spent millions of dollars in recent years upgrading its production capabilities but did not install waste conveyors, the report said.

“There had been little work done on the sawmill dust collection system and the problems that this wood waste was causing,” the report said.

The mill had reviewed its wood waste program following the explosion in Burns Lake, leading to the hiring of extra cleanup workers, but the efforts were “ineffective” in preventing dust accumulation.

The report also highlighted five previous incidents involving dust, which it said resulted in fires during the months leading up to the explosion. The Prince George fire department had also been called to extinguish blazes at least eight times since 1999, though the report noted they “represent only a fraction of the actual fire events at the mill.”

The report also outlined inspections done by the mill’s own health and safety committee, completed in each of the three months prior to the explosion, which identified debris and dust problems but did not consider them a major concern.

“The accumulation of sawdust and the urgent need for its removal appeals to have gone unnoticed in these inspections,” the report said.

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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