Aftermath of fatal April 23 explosion and fire at Lakeland Mills.
Aftermath of fatal April 23 explosion and fire at Lakeland Mills.

VANCOUVER - Babine Forest Products and Lakeland Mills could each face fines of up to $652,000 if found guilty of violating the Workers Compensation Act. Combustible dust explosions racked the two British Columbia sawmills earlier this year, killing four and injuring 52 others.

Although unlikely, up to six months jail time is also possible, news sources report.

Late last week, the Canadian provincial WorkSafeBC agency referred to the national Crown Counsel its investigation reports for the Jan. 19 Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and April 23 Lakeland Mills in Prince George. In each case, combustible dust and dust accumulation were found to be contributing factors to explosions that resulted in deaths. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police earlier had ruled out criminal negligence in both explosions.

The explosions at the mills, which were both processing pine beetle-killed wood at the time, “originated in spaces at the lower levels where conveyor systems were receiving and moving wood waste. They occurred around meal breaks and band saw changes. Friction from gear reducer motor sets has been identified as the likely ignition source in both explosions; wood dust was the fuel,” The Province, a local newspaper, quotes WorkSafeBC.

The two explosions occurring just a few months apart, spurred WorkSafeBC this spring to launch a combustible dust strategy requiring full-hazard identification, risk assessment and safety reviews at 280 sawmills and wood-related facilities. Although ongoing, WorkSafe BC inspections already have found that more than half of British Columbia’s sawmills, wood products and pulp facilities have wood dust levels that could result in fire or explosion.

According to the Vancouver Sun, of 83 facilities inspected by WorkSafeBC under Phase II of its combustible dust strategy, inspection records show that more than half “were cited for having levels of dust that ‘present a hazard of fire and/or explosion.’” Phase II of the program, which began in July, includes inspections of wood component manufacturers, planing mills, veneer and plywood plants, OSB plants and pulp mills in addition to sawmills which were covered under the Phase I directive.

The Vancouver Sun reports that of incidents cited under Phase II inspections, 21 involved dust collection system issues, the misuse of high pressure air for cleanup and lack of safe zone between workers and the dust collectors.

According to WorkSafeBC, there is an increased risk of combustible dust explosion in the winter, when low humidity levels “make dust easy to disperse and ignite” and ventilation is reduced or shut down to conserve heat in buildings. The agency cites investigations by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board which found that between 1995 and 2009, seven out of eight fatal combustible dust explosions occurred during the winter months.

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