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In Wake of Mount Polley, Union Wants New BC Safety Regime

Ministry defends miners' exclusion from WorkSafeBC.

By David P. Ball 14 Oct 2014 |

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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Its operator lucky to be alive, a bulldozer sits on the edge of a precipice only hours after the Aug. 4 collapse of Mount Polley's mine tailings dam. Screen capture from Cariboo Regional District video.

It took a spate of deaths in Nanaimo's coal mines to create a ministry devoted to regulating the industry in 1877. Since that era, the provincial department's authority over mine health and safety has endured -- and subsequent worker protection laws explicitly excluded mines to this day.

But after the near slaughter of workers by the Mount Polley mine tailings dam disaster this summer, the union representing many miners in B.C. is warning about worker safety in the industry.

Thirteen B.C. mine workers have been killed on the job since 2000, according to annual Chief Inspector of Mines reports. The worst year was 2006, when four died from oxygen deprivation at the Sullivan mine near Kimberley, B.C.

Over the same period, a total of 423 people were injured at mine sites, averaging 33 a year.

But the number of "health and safety orders" handed out by inspectors is staggering: 26,563 such directives were issued since 2000 in response to violations. That works out to an average of about 37 orders every week.*

The United Steelworkers union's regional director vividly remembers his reaction when he saw an early photo of the Mount Polley breach on Aug. 4: A lone bulldozer perched on the edge of the newly collapsed precipice, its tailings impoundment drained behind it and emptied into the watershed.

"We're just damn lucky the 'dozer wasn't where the dam failed, because we'd have lost a person instantly," Stephen Hunt recalls. "We were that close to losing someone. That's what I'd call in mining talk a 'near miss.'"

Shift safety oversight to WorkSafeBC: union

Since the collapse, there has been ongoing concern about the environmental damage caused by the disaster -- mine owner Imperial Metals since increased its estimate to 25 million cubic metres of potentially toxic tailings spilled -- as well as impacts on First Nations and residents of nearby Likely, B.C.

An independent review panel is continuing its investigation of what caused the failure, one of the worst mine tailings accidents in Canadian history.

However, little has been reported about worker health and safety at the mine, or the industry in B.C. more broadly, despite the sector being considered one of the more dangerous in which to work.

The guidelines for the province's Workers Compensation Act state that "WorkSafeBC's prevention jurisdiction does not extend to mines to which the Mines Act applies."

Because of the dangers faced by workers in the industry, Steelworkers want to see the Workers' Compensation Board (WorkSafeBC) granted authority over the mining sector.

"The Ministry of Energy and Mines is not like the Workers' Compensation Board -- it's not arm's-length," Hunt alleged. "We lost faith in the Ministry of Energy and Mines' ability to do real, tangible health and safety inspections and issue orders a long, long time ago.

"Why would you want to bring another health and safety authority in that has the authority to penalize you on the spot, has more teeth than the Mines Act, and is arm's length from government?"

The Ministry of Energy and Mines declined an interview request, but a spokesman stated that WorkSafeBC excludes mines because departmental inspectors "have expertise in the mining industry."

"Mine health and safety inspectors are involved in all aspects of the mining cycle from the exploration phase through to final reclamation," explained Jake Jacobs in an emailed statement. "This total involvement is a key component in ensuring safe working mines. The integration of health and safety with mine permitting ensures worker safety is accounted for during the planning phase of a mine operation."

Spike in 'near miss' reports

Under the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in B.C., mine managers must report all "dangerous occurrences" on their site to an inspector, an occupational health and safety committee, and the local union if applicable, according to a 2010 directive from the Chief Inspector of Mines.

Since that directive, the number of "near miss" reports has spiked from previous levels. But mining nonetheless remains a deadly industry.

Causes of death in B.C. mines, according to the Chief Inspector reports, vary, and include both "mining related" fatalities and "non-mining" deaths on mine sites.

Deaths include "massive crush injuries," "oxygen deficient atmosphere," "touched a hydro line," vehicles plummeting "from the work area into the bottom of the pit," "forestry timber moving at great speed," and "large piece of rock fell without warning from the hanging wall behind him, with fatal consequences."

Hunt argued that if "cutting red tape" has been a BC Liberal pledge since the party was elected in 2001, then eliminating redundant or duplicated legislation should not be politically controversial.

"They're trying to see how many regulations they can reduce," he said. "So this should be red meat to them, you would think. But there's no appetite to talk about it. The discussion is now overdue."

What would have happened if the Mount Polley dam hadn't failed in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m. -- or if employees had been actively working in the area at the time it collapsed?

"Clearly, the potential was there to harm somebody," Hunt said, listing off everything from rock-hauling trucks in process of raising the dam's height at the time of the accident to pump monitors and fishermen downstream. "There's lots of places this could have been an even bigger tragedy. We're just very, very lucky.

"Everybody was fortunate there weren't deaths or serious injuries because of this."

*Story corrected Oct. 14 at 8:40 a.m. to fix a math error.


  • WorkSafeBC's prevention jurisdiction does not extend to mines to which the Mines Act applies.

  • All activities conducted in relation to mining within the boundaries of a Mines Act permit area fall within the [occupational health and safety] jurisdiction of [Ministry of Energy and Mines].

  • Examples include: mining drilling and exploration; construction and blasting on mine property; operation of mining company labs and mobile equipment at a mine site; roads on mine property; and processing facilities, power lines and pipelines that service the mine and are situated within the mine boundaries.

  • Sites outside of the mine permit area that are designated as "mines" by the Chief Inspector of Mines will also fall under MEM's OHS jurisdiction.

  • WorkSafeBC has jurisdiction over OHS with respect to areas, machinery, equipment and buildings that are not used to service or in connection with a "mine" as defined above. This includes, for example, access roads outside of the mine boundaries, and timber removal operations that are not connected to the mining activity (even if they are carried out within the mine boundaries).

  • Source: WorkSafeBC

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