No charges laid in fatal B.C. sawmill explosion

Crown says evidence gathered by WorkSafeBC was flawed, almost no likelihood of conviction

More than two years after the deadly blast at a sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., which killed two workers and injured several others, the Crown has decided not to lay criminal charges.

The decision came down in mid-January, with the Crown dismissing evidence gathered by WorkSafeBC on the basis its investigation was flawed. As such, no criminal charges could be laid. The Crown also decided to throw out other charges because there was no substantial likelihood of conviction should the employer — Babine Forest Products — use the defense of due diligence in court.

The court’s ruling sent shock waves through the community and has sparked a province-wide uproar regarding health and safety at sawmills such as the one in Burns Lake.

Following the court’s decision, B.C. Premier Christy Clark called WorkSafeBC’s investigation unacceptable and ordered a review into the investigation process. The report, released in mid-February by British Columbia’s top civil servant, John Dyble, included recommendations to streamline the process and focus the relationship between WorkSafeBC investigators and the criminal justice branch.

As part of the review, labour minister Shirley Bond cited a combustible dust strategy to help mitigate the risks associated with sawdust build-up. That includes inspections at each of the province’s 144 sawmills and inspection courses for local fire commissioners.

"Ensuring mill workers are safe on the job site has always been a priority and efforts to enhance safety measures began immediately after the explosion and continue today," Bond said. "Given the tragic events of 2012, it is expected that every employer in the sawmill and wood product processing industry understands their safety responsibilities and is taking appropriate action."

But WorkSafeBC said its investigation was carried out using the same strategy as any other investigation.

"Our officers attended the Babine site within hours of the explosion and fire and remained at the site for 13 weeks, conducting one of, if not the largest, scene examinations in the history of WorkSafeBC and the province," said Jeff Dolan, director of investigations at WorkSafeBC.

One known factor in the fatal explosion is sawdust.

"The remaining admissible evidence does support, to the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a theory that there was sawdust in the mill at the time of ignition and that the sawdust was at least one fuel for the fire," explained Dolan. "At the time of the incident, there was an accumulation of sawdust in the sawmill. The preponderance of the evidence is that dust conditions in the mill were relatively good — but imperfect — at the time of the incident. The evidence shows that Babine workers were killed and injured in the workplace in this incident."

WorkSafeBC’s report concluded the elements for a wood dust explosion were present. That includes the concentration of dispersed wood dust in the air, friction with the motor-reducer V-belt guard as an ignition source and ineffective wood dust control measures. Conditions of the wood and the effect of weather also played a part in the explosion, as did inadequate supervision of clean-up and maintenance staff.

System a ‘jurisdiction wasteland’: Labour

At the very least, the employer should have faced consequences, said Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour.

"The reason we want the law to apply to employers on their worksites is because if there are no consequences, then there is no incentive to clean up your act," Sinclair said.

As it currently stands, Sinclair called the system a "jurisdictional wasteland," adding that upping consequences for the negligent employers will help to dissuade bad, unsafe behaviour.

"The Crown has resisted taking charges against employers who are negligent for years. This isn’t the first time, it’s only the latest time," he said. "We have way too many people die every year in this province. That’s what this is about, people preventing people dying on the job, and almost every one of them is needless, completely avoidable."

Sinclair said the system needs to be legitimized and real consequences — whether that is fines or jail time — should they not uphold basic occupational health and safety standards.

"Health and safety is pretty simple, you know," Sinclair said. "You need regulations to keep people safe, you need education so people know what the laws are — both employers and workers — you need enforcement, and you need consequences."

B.C. Safety Authority investigation

The B.C. Safety Authority also conducted an investigation into the Burns Lake explosion. It determined the root cause of the Babine explosion was a failure to control the hazard created by combustible wood dust, and issued nine recommendations to sawmills, the Canadian Standards Association and the office of the fire commissioner. To employers, the safety authority recommended the identification of hazardous locations, develop wood dust management practices and incorporate a fire safety plan.

A report into another fatal explosion at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., which killed two workers and left other seriously injured, is expected later this month.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!