VICTORIA—Massive changes are needed at WorkSafeBC to restore public confidence in the worker protection agency’s investigations after two deadly sawmill blasts have failed to result in charges, Labour Minister Shirley Bond said.
British Columbia’s Criminal Justice Branch announced this week that no charges will be laid in connection with a fiery blast at a Lakeland Mills Ltd. facility in Prince George, B.C., where two people were killed and 22 were hurt in April 2012.
The branch made a similar announcement in January, saying no charges would be laid after the explosion at the Babine Forest Products Ltd. mill, despite the deaths of two workers injuries to 19 others in January 2012—partly because of a flawed WorkSafeBC inspection.
Bond said she met with the WorkSafeBC board on the weekend, and that members decided to appoint BC Ferries commissioner Gord Macatee as the WorkSafeBC administrator.
Bond gave Macatee until July 1 to produce a report that would ensure future WorkSafeBC investigations are handled correctly, that B.C.’s sawmills are safe workplaces and to develop a plan for implementing a world-class inspection and investigation regime.
“There can be no mistaking the need for reform in WorkSafeBC’s investigations approach,” Bond said in a letter sent to WorkSafeBC. “Together, we must address the pressing need to both restore the public’s confidence in WorkSafeBC investigations, and to ensure we are never again faced with circumstances like those at Babine and Lakeland.”
Bond also announced a coroner’s inquest will be held into the April 2012 explosion and fire at the Lakeland Mills sawmill.
She earlier announced a coroner’s inquest into the Burns Lake explosion.
B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch said that based on available evidence there would be no substantial likelihood of conviction connected to the Lakeland Mills blast.
In February, WorkSafeBC recommended charges connected to regulatory offences against the company.
Criminal Justice Branch officials met with the families of the dead and injured workers in Prince George this week to inform them of the decision before it was released publicly.
The April 23, 2012 explosion killed 43-year-old Alan Little and 46-year-old Glenn Roche.
“To approve charges, it is not enough for Crown counsel to say, based on the available evidence, that the person or corporate entity accused of an offence committed a wrongful act, or failed to take steps to prevent something dangerous from happening,” said a statement released by the Criminal Justice Branch.
“Instead, Crown counsel must be satisfied that there is a substantial likelihood of conviction for an identifiable regulatory or criminal offence in light of the required legal elements that must be proved. The fact that something may have been preventable does not, by itself, provide the basis for a prosecution.”
But Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix told a news conference in Vancouver that the decision underscores the need for a sweeping, independent inquiry into sawmill safety and the two investigations.
“In 2012, within the span of four months, two mills exploded, four workers died, and more than 40 were left injured,” Dix said. “Two years later, within the span of four months, justice has been denied to the families of the deceased and the survivors.”
The Criminal Justice Branch statement also cited inspection reports written by WorkSafeBC officials who visited the Lakeland operation before the explosion.
The reports concluded the mill was clean in comparison to others with regards to sawmill dust, with an official stating, “I did not observe a violation of excessive dust.”
The WorkSafeBC inspections—prompted by a fire and concerns about dust by an anonymous employee—were conducted less than three months before the explosion and fire at Lakeland.
“Based on the evidence provided in the report to Crown counsel, Lakeland can be expected to point to the February 6, 2012, WorkSafeBC inspection and argue that if an officer with training and previous involvement in settled and airborne combustible dust inspections or investigations did not identify a fire and explosion hazard, then Lakeland cannot reasonably be expected to have foreseen the sawdust-related fire and explosion hazard that caused the incident of April 23, 2012,” the report said.
The report stated that Lakeland experienced a fire in January 2012, three months before the deadly explosion, that resulted from sparks from a machine called a headrig.
“Although no workers were injured, the fire is reported to have involved a column of burning sawdust that rose to the ceiling. One witness described it as a ball that ‘went straight up.’ Others described it as a ‘poof’ that then ‘died off,’ and a ‘big ball of flame’ that ‘burned down fairly quickly,'” the report said. “This incident also involved a dozen or more spot fires in the vicinity of the headrig. The fires were extinguished by mill workers.”
The report said an industrial, wholesale, vacuum-cleaner company representative and a distributor visited the mill two weeks before the blast and warned about the possibility of an explosion, but others on the same visit denied hearing the statement or recalled that it was even made.
It wasn’t until May 2012, about a week after the Lakeland explosion, that it became clear that wood dust played a large role in the explosion at the Burns Lake sawmill, the report said.
The Criminal Justice Branch said the owners of Lakeland Mills would likely succeed on a defence of due diligence, saying it made reasonable efforts to prevent an incident.