Inquest recommendations give chance to heal for family of Burns Lake blast victim

The sister of a Burns Lake millworker is greeting the end of a coroners inquest into his death with relief, exhaustion and the hope the recommendations arising from an explosive workplace disaster will not be ignored.

Lucy Campbell said Saturday her family "can now start to heal" after the inquest into the January 2012 blast at the Babine Forest Products Inc. sawmill that killed her brother Carl Charlie, 42, Robert Luggi, 45, and injured 19 others wrapped up Friday. 

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"The last... weeks have been very heartwrenching, listening to the survivors of the explosion, the management, WorkSafe, the Steelworkers," said Campbell. "The injustices... the accountability... All of this could have been avoided.

"I hope this is a stepping stone for management, other industries to really take care of their work environment and, No.1, take care of their workers."

The inquest, led by coroner Chico Newell, ruled Charlie and Luggi's deaths accidental, the latest judgment stemming from two deadly B.C. mill explosions three months apart in early 2012 -- one at Babine, the other at Lakeland Mills in Prince George that killed Glenn Roche, 46, Alan Little, 43, and injured 22 more.

A four-and-a-half week inquest into the Lakeland blast also ruled Roche and Little's deaths accidental and both inquests focused on the hazards of combustible dust created by milling mountain pine beetle-killed wood, which industry and government authorities have said were not well understood at the time.

But where many of the 33 recommendations issued by the coroner and jury looking into the Lakeland blast are more general in their approach and tone, the recommendations from the Babine inquest jury, as well as eight given by Newell himself, are more specific and pointed.

They include: advice to Babine Forest Products regarding improved safety systems and procedures after an accident; a range of measures to address a lack of knowledge and breakdowns in communication on the part of the company that owned the mill Hampton Resources Inc. (better known as Hampton Affiliates), the United Steelworkers union, and the provincial safety authority WorkSafeBC; and concerns over testimony that highlighted "bullying, intimidation, and discrimination that prevented (workers) from bringing forward safety concerns." 

For all 41 Babine inquest recommendations, visit pgc.cc/babinefindings. For the Lakeland jury recommendations, see pgc.cc/lakelandfindings

Campbell said her brother, a father of four with several stepchildren, often confided in her about conditions at the mill, saying it was "a disaster waiting to happen." 

It was bad enough, she said, that Charlie was hoping to find a new job after 18 years at Babine Forest Products. She told the inquest her brother was supposed to be off work on Jan. 20, 2012, the day of the explosion, but decided to take a weekend shift to earn extra money for his daughter's high school graduation.  

"It's pretty sad, it's just too bad he waited too late to change careers," said Campbell. 

"I still feel like there were a lot of injustices as far as the negligence and the workers not being taken care of, not just my brother but a lot of workers.

"If it's too cold and machines are breaking down, common sense is, fix it before something like this happens."

The inquest jury cited evidence suggesting temperatures as low as minus-45 C with the windchill, humidity and changes in air flow were contributing factors to the dust-fuelled explosion. One survivor told the inquest the mill was "buttoned up" as a result of the cold with plastic stapled over windows and other openings to the point the air was so filled with static electricity "the hair on our arms was standing up straight."

An expert on dust fuelled-explosions testified static electricity is enough to spark a blast if there is enough dust in the air. The jury also cited evidence closing up the plant "created a contained area for the explosion to take place"

A WorkSafeBC investigation narrowed the ignition source down to the friction from a 'v-belt' rubbing against sawdust compacted underneath a guard overtop of the assembly for a motor and gear reducer located in the mill's basement.

However, other experts have said the dust in the mill could have been ignited from a variety of sources.

The six-man, two-woman jury also addressed what was known about the dangers of combustible wood dust before the Babine explosion. It said evidence revealed that as early as 2008 such information was available in the public domain but "this information was not effectively shared throughout Hampton's milling operations."

The jury likewise pointed to another measure that could have discerned the dangers of wood dust sooner: WorkSafeBC's risk analysis unit, which was created in 2014 to examine potential workplace dangers around the world. It recommended giving the unit the power to issue hazard alerts while also asking WorkSafeBC to address its inspectors' lack of specific training when it came to wood product manufacturing facilities.

The state of the workplace environment was also a recurring theme in the jury's findings. It called on the union, the United Steelworkers, to "ensure that union representatives fully understand their responsibilities", citing evidence "there was not full confidence in having job-related complaints carried forward."

Both the jury and the coroner dedicated many of their recommendations to addressing concerns regarding aboriginal workers at the mill. Newell's first recommendation was Babine conduct an employment equity audit due to a "lack of First Nations representation in supervisory and management positions" while he later asked the union "proactively recruit Aboriginal persons" for a variety of positions around the mill. He also called on Babine to move forward with a relationship accord with the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, which partly owns the mill. 

The jury recommended Babine consider appointing an aboriginal liaison coordinator.

"(There were) First Nations who had been there for many years and had a lot of experience who were never promoted," said Campbell.

Requests for comment from Hampton Affiliates and the United Steelworkers District 3 were not answered. WorkSafeBC issued a statement vowing to examine the recommendations.

Among the journey's recommendations were a pair of changes to the Workers Compensation Act regarding giving WSBC officers greater powers and the wider dissemination of incident investigation reports.

“The Babine Forest Products Inquest jury recommendations received July 31 will be reviewed and inform the efforts already underway across government to improve worker safety, including if necessary future changes to the Workers Compensation Act," said a statement from the B.C. Ministry Responsible for Labour. "These efforts will include the completed review of the jury recommendations from the Lakeland Mill Inquest."

According to a government website, in May the Liberals passed a set of changes to the Workers Compensation Act recommended by Gord Macatee, the administrator of WorkSafeBC stemming from the Babine and Lakeland explosionsm. They included expanding the ability for WorkSafeBC officers to issue stop-work orders.

The jury also asked the federal Minister of Justice Peter McKay to further examine amendments to the Criminal Code stemming from the 1992 Westray Mine disaster that dealt with criminal liability related to failing to ensure a safe workplace. A call for comment from the ministry of justice was not answered.

Acccording to CKNW, Campbell was among those who were disappointed the provincial Liberal government opted for a coroners inquest rather than a public inquiry into the Babine and Lakeland explosions. But on Saturday she said it was still too soon after the inquest to reiterate her call for a further examination of the tragedy.

"After going through these weeks and all the recommendations, I'm hoping that they'll be taken into consideration by the owners, management," said Campbell. "It was what all of our families were hoping for. It is what it is right now." 

Many of the calls for a public inquiry were spurred by a January 2014 decision by the B.C. Ministry of Justice's Criminal Justice Branch not to pursue charges against the owners of Babine Forest Products Inc. that were recommended by WorkSafeBC. 

The decision by the CJB cited deficiencies with WorkSafeBC's investigation and the likelihood Babine's owners would be able to show they could not have foreseen "the full extent of the hazards of combustible sawdust."

The CJB cited similar rationale in declining to pursue charges against the owners of Prince George's Lakeland Mills.

Following the CJB decision, WorkSafeBC fined Babine Forest Products more than $1 million in what CBC reported at the time was the largest such penalty ever handed out in B.C. Babine appealed the fine and a WorkSafeBC official said Saturday an appeals process is ongoing.

WorkSafeBC also fined Lakeland over $700,000 and the Prince George mills' owner likewise appealed that penalty.

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