As reported in Thursday's Citizen by the Vancouver Sun's Gordon Hoekstra (still not used to that, since he was ours for 15 years), Carrier Lumber was one of at least 11 BC Interior sawmills that had hazardous levels of wood dust a week after WorkSafeBC issued cleanup orders in late April.
Those cleanup orders were issued in the context of the Lakeland Mills explosion and fire April 23 in Prince George and a similar event at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake three months earlier. In both cases, two men died and about 20 were hurt.
Worksafe BC issued the cleanup order the day after Lakeland happened and then sent inspectors out to sawmills in early May.
Before Carrier Lumber and the other 10 sawmills, including Conifex in Fort St. James and Canfor's plant in Quesnel, are criticized too heavily for not immediately following through on the cleanup order, some background needs to be applied.
For starters, the milling of dry pine beetle-killed timber is a prime suspect for generating the kind of airborne wood dust that may have led to the explosion and fire at the two mills. The investigations into the cause of the Babine and Lakeland tragedies are ongoing, with part of those investigations including detailed scientific analysis of whether the dust produced by milling beetle wood is different from regular wood dust and whether the beetle wood dust, in sufficient quantities and the right spark, could produce a massive explosion.
Until those investigations are complete and the results made public, it's still premature to blame the accumulation of beetle wood dust for what happened at Babine and Lakeland. Worksafe BC issued the cleanup orders as a precautionary measure, until those investigations are complete.
In other words, better safe than sorry was applied, a prudent decision based on the circumstances, but one still made quickly, while firefighters were still putting out the hotspots from the Lakeland fire.
Secondly, the cleanup order set an arbitrary level of one-eighth (0.125) of an inch of dust covering five per cent of a mills area as a combustible hazard. Anything more constituted a hazardous buildup and was deemed unsafe. Again, a prudent move but not based on analysis. There is no research to say that those levels are safe and higher levels are unsafe.
Furthermore, does a one-sixteenth (0.0625) of an inch of dust covering 10 per cent of a mill's area equal the same amount of hazard? How about 0.0313 (a little more than three-one hundredths) of an inch covering 20 per cent of the mill? How about 0.0156 (between one and two-one hundredths) of an inch of dust covering 80 per cent of the mill? To put that amount of dust in context, it equals more than 15 human hairs -- each 0.001 or one-one thousandth of an inch thick - stacked together.
Finally, the time frame is important to take into consideration
The rules were changed abruptly and then inspections were quickly done to check on enforcement. With the week or two between the new rules and the inspections, there were bound to be some sawmills that didn't meet the test.
To make the leap from that to argue that this is irresponsible behavior on the part of sawmill owners who don't care about the safety of their employees is itself irresponsible.
The vice-president of Tolko, which had three of its mills cited, said it best.
I think if you were to sort of date stamp the reports, the worst findings would be on day 1 and they would get progressively better by the time they got to day 15, Bob Fleet said. And they might even be in 100 per cent compliance to the new rules by day 15. And I dont just mean Tolko, but everyone.
That view was shared by a Worksafe BC spokesman.
I think every mill is making headway right now, otherwise I would expect to see penalties [issued by WorkSafeBC officers], said manager Bob Clarke.
The May inspections were a snapshot in time, done to make sure sawmills were quickly adjusting to the new, precautionary rules.
The expectation of sawmill operators to keep their workplaces safe for their employees and the expectation of provincial inspectors to monitor worker safety has always been a serious one.
Four deaths and the destruction of two mills is a deadly reminder of that.
Managing editor, Neil Godbout