A wood dust explosion 16 months ago that blew apart a small control room and started a fire at a Williams Lake sawmill went unreported to WorkSafeBC, the chief workplace safety agency in the province.
The incident was among five explosions news reports linked to wood dust in north and central B.C. between 2009 and 2011 that took place before two fatal sawmill explosions this year at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and Lakeland Mills in Prince George.
WorkSafeBC also said it has no record of an explosion in 2011 at a Pinnacle Pellet plant in Armstrong.
WorkSafe inspectors and industry representatives have not directly linked the two fatal sawmill explosions, which killed four workers and injured dozens more, to wood dust. But increasing attention has been directed to the fine powder produced from dry, pine beetle-killed timber milled at these facilities in north and central B.C.
The safety agency has ordered sawmills to investigate dust levels and other hazards, saying the review is urgently needed given the recent deaths.
It is possible the small explosion at Tolko’s Soda Creek sawmill in Williams Lake in January 2011 and the Pinnacle Pellet explosion in April 2011 were not reported to WorkSafe because they did not result in injury, but it is not clear if that is the case.
The agency refused to provide an official for an interview Tuesday, instead pointing to requirements for reporting incidents as outlined in the Workers’ Compensation Act.
The act says that any incident that injures or kills a worker must be reported to WorkSafeBC. But incidents that have the potential to cause severe injury must also be investigated by the company and reported to WorkSafeBC.
Officials from the safety agency noted via email the B.C. Fire Commissioner’s Office has primary jurisdiction over fire safety in the province, although the two organizations are meant to communicate with each other.
News reports of the Soda Creek sawmill incident described a dust explosion that caused a fire in the walls, which was “tough” to put out.
The Williams Lake fire department had called the nearby 150 Mile House fire department for help. Fire department chief Randy Isfeld said Tuesday the local fire department does not inspect sawmills in the area, although they do inspect public buildings, hotels, motels, and retail stores.
Instead, the sawmills’ insurers inspect the mills for fire risks, said Isfeld.
Dean Colville, who worked at the Soda Creek mill, said the 2011 explosion happened just as he arrived for the afternoon shift. Workers ended up waiting in the parking lot as the fire was put out, he said.
Colville said the explosion blew out the wood walls of the small control centre (a wood-framed room about 25 feet by 10 feet), which allowed the mill’s machinery to be shut down during maintenance.
Following the explosion, the company made efforts to clean up dust in the mill, said Colville, who is vice-president of United Steelworkers 1-425.
Colville said the Soda Creek mill was sawing about 90 per cent pine killed by the mountain pine beetle, which created more dust.
“I think everyone was aware of the fire hazard — of the dust and how dry it was. To get [an] explosion out of it, I don’t think they thought it was possible,” he said.
“Hindsight is 20-20. You see what’s going on now, and you say, ‘Holy crap,’ ” said Colville, referring to the two recent fatal explosions.
Tolko, which operates the Soda Creek mill, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Additionally, WorkSafeBC relied on Pacific Bioenergy to investigate itself in a pair of explosions at its pellet plant in Prince George which occurred in December 2010 and March 2008. Pellet plants press wood shavings and sawdust into pellets used in industrial and home heating.
WorkSafeBC regional manager Bruce Clarke would only speak about Pacific BioEnergy’s investigations, saying they were reviewed and found adequate.
He said the explosions at the pellet plant in Prince George can’t be compared to the recent deadly sawmill blasts.
That’s because the explosions at the pellet plant happened in the piping system that handles the dust, which is designed with explosion safety measures, said Clarke, while the explosions in the two sawmills took place in open areas where employees were working.
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