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Fines against Lakeland upheld

A WorkSafeBC review officer has upheld a decision to impose nearly $725,000 in fines against Lakeland Mills over the April 2012 explosion and fire that killed two workers and destroyed the sawmill.
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A WorkSafeBC review officer has upheld fines levied against Lakeland Mills over the April 2012 explosion and fire that killed to workers, seriously injured more than a dozen others and destroyed the sawmill.

A WorkSafeBC review officer has upheld a decision to impose nearly $725,000 in fines against Lakeland Mills over the April 2012 explosion and fire that killed two workers and destroyed the sawmill.

Glenn Roche, 46, and Alan Little, 43, died from injuries suffered in the catastrophe and more than 20 workers were injured, the majority of them seriously.

WorkSafeBC subsequently ordered Lakeland to pay a claims cost levy of $626,663.28 and an administrative penalty of $97,500, adding up to $724,163.28 in total. 

Lakeland appealed the levies but in a decision reached Dec.19, review officer Melina Lorenz denied its request to rescind or reduce the amounts.

On the claims cost levy, Lorenz noted that the overall claims cost from the incident added up to more than $6 million. Moreover, 16 of the claims from the explosion met WorkSafeBC's  definition of serious injury or death.

She also noted the levy imposed was 75 per cent of the maximum WorkSafeBC can impose after the deciding officer found the employer's actions did not amount to gross negligence. 

Revenue from claims cost levies go into WorkSafeBC's accident fund.

On the administrative penalty, WorkSafeBC opted to add 30 per cent to the basic amount, which Lorenz found was justified, particularly given the catastrophic nature of the disaster.

WorkSafeBC investigators had concluded the explosion was caused by ignition of wood dusts suspended in the air.

According to Lorenz's review of the facts, the mill had several fires in the six months leading up to the blast, compared to only only three recorded fires between 1999 and 2010.

Moreover, a fire inspector toured the mill in November 2011 and found excessive accumulations of fine wood dust – the worst he had seen in his career – and ordered Lakeland to develop a policy to deal with the hazard.

Of particular note was a January 2012 incident in which a saw came apart and sent out sparks that ignited dust in the air, sending a sheet of flame about 10 metres into the air.

That same day, the Babine Forest Products sawmill near Burns Lake blew up under similar circumstances, killing two workers and injuring more than 20 others. 

In part, Lakeland had argued the fine was unjustified because no one in the province's sawmill industry was aware of the hazards of combustible dust until the explosion at its own sawmill.

Lorenz found that was no excuse and noted Lakeland's own investigation of the fireball incident concluded dust in the air was the ignition source. She also noted that while the investigation into the Babine incident was still ongoing when the blast struck Lakeland, there was speculation within the industry that dust was possibly a contributing factor.

Lakeland consequently put more resources toward improving general housekeeping around the mill, but Lorenz found it did not do enough and that the mill's overall cleanliness had not improved since November 2011 when the fire inspector toured the premises.

Lakeland was in the process of bringing in a vacuum system to manage the problem but Lorenz said Lakeland should have done more in the interim.

"Since the clean-up workers were unable to keep the mill consistently clean, the employer could reasonably have increased the number of clean-up workers further or reduced production so that there would be more time for focused cleanup," Lorenz wrote in the decision. "Such actions could potentially have prevented the explosion from occurring or from being as serious as it was."

Nor did she find the levy unduly harsh, saying Lakeland's payroll exceeded $11 million prior to the blast and by 2015 was over $8 million once the new mill had been constructed and was in operation.

"Lakeland is disappointed but not surprised and will be taking the next four weeks or so to consider options and next steps," Lakeland spokesman Cam McAlpine said. He declined to elaborate on why Lakeland was not surprised. 

In November, Lorenz also upheld more than $1 million worth of penalties against Babine Forest Products, owned by Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates in partnership with the Burns Lake Native Development Corp.

The full decision is posted with this story at pgcitizen.ca.