Two WorkSafe B.C. inspectors visited the Lakeland Mills sawmill in response to an anonymous complaint that the facility could become the "next Babine sawmill" but did not take any action, a coroner's inquest heard Wednesday.
Darren Beattie, a WorkSafe occupational safety officer at the time, testified he and WorkSafe occupational hygiene officer Kim Hess, made an unannounced call on the morning of Feb. 6, 2012 and performed an inspection but found no reason to issue an order to clean it up.
WorkSafe later determined the flour-like sawdust from the beetle-killed pine Lakeland was processing was the fuel in the April 23, 2012 explosion that leveled the mill. Supervisor Alan Little and headrig operator Glenn Roche died from the severe burns they suffered in the blast, and 22 others were injured, many seriously.
WorkSafe also found the sawdust fueled the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion at Babine Forest Products that also killed two men and injured roughly 20 other employees.
Questioned by coroner's counsel John Orr, Beattie agreed it was the dirtiest he had seen the mill in the 10 years he had inspected the facility, but Lakeland was "quite a clean mill in comparison to its industry counterparts."
Beattie said he noticed that since late 2011, Lakeland had not been kept as clean as in the past and began to see more of a light film of dust on the floor and railings.
At the time, Beattie said he was not aware of the National Fire Prevention Association standard of no more than one-eighth an inch of dust covering no more than five per cent of the area.
"We did not have a reference point at that time, we based our assessment on experience and comparison within the industry," Beattie said.
Beattie was shown photos that electrician Don Zwozdesky happened to take of areas in the sawmill the same day as the visit and handed over to WorkSafe following the April 23, 2012 explosion at Lakeland.
Beattie said the photos were from areas he did not check during the inspection - beneath the slashers and debarkers - but agreed they're typically the dirtiest parts of the facility. Pressed by Orr on the matter, Beattie said there appeared to be no reason to check the spots.
He said the anonymous caller did not provide a contact and did not say where the specific problem was and there typically aren't any workers in those areas to talk to.
"The indications we were getting from our observations in other parts of the inspection were not indicative of telling us there was a problem," Beattie said.
But had he seen the spots, Beattie said he would have pursued the matter.
Beattie said a summary of the call was forwarded to the Prince George WorkSafe office on the afternoon of Feb. 3, 2012, a Friday about two weeks after the Babine incident, and they showed up at Lakeland without prior warning at 9 a.m. the following Monday.
Beattie said he was aware there were cleanup shifts over the weekend, but also noted there were production shifts over the same time as well.
Lakeland had asked WorkSafe to check an x-ray scanner that was part of a new sorting system along the mill's west wall and Beattie said they went to that location first before touring the rest of the operating floor. They also went down to the basement level but not to where Zwozdesky took the photos.
Although no order was written, Lakeland did take some action, he noted, as they began looking for an industrial-strength vacuum system. "We had talked about alternative methods to cleaning dust," Beattie said.
Beattie said he knew dust-related explosions could occur in the baghouses but "I didn't know it could explode in larger areas such as a building." Following the Babine and Lakeland incidents, Beattie, who now works as the safety director for Conifex, said WorkSafe officers have received training on how to recognize dust that poses a threat for combustion.
Hess, who followed Beattie, said she was aware of the NFPA standard but it was not being enforced by WorkSafe at the time. It's now being enforced, she told the inquest.
She had also attended a workshop at WorkSafe's Richmond office in March 2010 on dust-related explosions but the examples provided were related to "very fine, dry dust."
"I still had difficulties when I left that course being able to apply the principles of dust explosions to wood dust," Hess said.
As an occupational hygiene officer Hess said she was at Lakeland primarily to look for dust in the air and found no trouble. Hess had responded to complaints about the sawdust from beetle-killed pine as she walked through sawmills in 2009 and 2010 but they were about the health effects not the possibility for a fire or explosion.