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'Comprehensive risk assessment' of sawmill dust ordered by WorkSafeBC

Spurred by similarities between the fiery explosions at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake on January 20 and the Lakeland Hills mill in Prince George on April 23, WorkSafeBC is ordering every sawmill employer in B.C. to gauge sawdust-related dangers on site. WorkSafe BC said its officers will be dispatched to inspect their premises making sure safe conditions are being enforced.

Here is the text of the "Directive Order to Sawmill Employers":

In the past 3 months explosions and fires at two sawmills in British Columbia have resulted in fatalities and serious injuries to workers.

This employer is ordered to, without undue delay, at its sawmill and any related facility:

- undertake a comprehensive risk assessment with respect to hazards created by combustible dusts, which assessment must include a thorough inspection of the employer’s facility, and

- develop and implement an effective combustible dust control program based on the risk assessment.

A WorkSafeBC prevention officer will be conducting a follow-up inspection on site no later than May 9, 2012, to evaluate the employer’s actions taken immediately to fully comply with the order in the Inspection Report.

Failure to comply with this order without undue delay will result in further action, including possible sanctions and stop work orders. A WorkSafeBC officer will follow up on this order to evaluate compliance.

The employer’s attention is drawn to the following requirements in the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation:

5.71 Flammable air contaminants

(1) If an operation or work process produces a combustible or flammable air contaminant in concentrations that may present a risk of fire or explosion, the employer must provide a separate exhaust ventilation system for the operation or work process.

5.81 Combustible dust

If combustible dust collects in a building or structure or on machinery or equipment, it must be safely removed before accumulation of the dust could cause a fire or explosion.

3.5 General requirement

Every employer must ensure that regular inspections are made of all workplaces, including buildings, structures, grounds, excavations, tools, equipment, machinery and work methods and practices, at intervals that will prevent the development of unsafe working conditions.

A copy of OHS Guidelines G5.81 and G5.71 have been provided to this employer under separate cover.

In a press release sent out Tuesday, April 24, WorkSafe BC Vice President of Corporate Services Roberta Ellis was quoted saying, "We recognize that there are similarities between the explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George -- both are sawmills, dust was present in both, as in all sawmills, and both mills were working with beetle-infested wood. However, we cannot speculate, based on these similarities, as to the cause of these events."

The release said WorkSafeBC had begin an investigation into the deadly Lakeland Mills explosion, and acknowledged that "The tragic events in Prince George have resulted in calls for the release of information gathered to date in the investigation into the Burns Lake sawmill explosion that took place earlier this year. This investigation is ongoing, however the site has been returned to the employer; equipment that must be examined has been removed from the site and transferred to independent laboratories for testing and analysis, and information and evidence gathered through witness statements is being analyzed."

Ellis was quoted saying: "No preliminary findings into the Burns Lake investigation are available at this time and WorkSafeBC is not in a position to release information that might compromise the process. Investigators continue to examine fuel sources including combustible sawdust and gas as well as potential ignition sources."

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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