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BC pellet producers step up to reduce dust explosion hazards


British Columbia pellet producers are facing stepped up safety inspections by WorkSafeBC. Administrator Gord Macatee prepared a review and action plan that outlines plans for an agency restructuring and reviews mitigation of safety hazards from dust at sawmills and wood manufacturing facilities.

The effort was the result of separate explosions in early 2012 that destroyed two sawmills and resulted in four deaths and 42 injured workers in Burns Lake and Prince George, British Columbia. WorkSafeBC’s investigations concluded that all of the conditions for wood dust explosions existed, and inadequate systems were in place to mitigate the hazards. Two years later, criminal charges were not approved by the Criminal Justice Branch, which said the procedures followed in what began as inspection and evolved into an investigation meant the evidence gathered would likely be ruled as inadmissible by a trial court.

Provincial officials launched an agency review to make recommendations on the best way to separate the inspection and investigation functions, and asked for a 90-day action plan to ensure worker safety and dust hazard mitigation compliance.

The report found that sawmills improved their compliance performance, from 61 receiving compliance orders at the end of Phase III to 14 at the end of Phase IV. The relatively small number of pellet mills and other wood product manufacturing facilities did not see the same level of progress, the report said. “The challenges of managing dust accumulations are undoubtedly difficult,” it acknowledged. “However, the risk of a combustible dust event remains unacceptably high with 60 percent of mills receiving orders. Further work is required.”

“This is a relatively small industry, and the challenges involved with managing dust accumulations are considerable,” the report said. “Further work is required to ensure the risks associated with combustible dust are mitigated. As such, Prevention Officers should continue to conduct regular inspections of pellet mills and other wood product manufacturers. Where violations are discovered, enforcement tools should be escalated to bring this sector into compliance.”

One of the challenges for the wood product manufacturing sector, the report mentioned, is the lack of an established Health and Safety Association. “HSAs are structured as nonprofit societies with a representative board of directors; they provide training and certification and are responsible for sharing industry best practices with their members.”  

In the absence of an HSA, the Manufacturer’s Advisory Group stepped in to work on the 90-day action plan, along with representatives from labor and industry. MAG hired five industry advisors to receive training in combustible dust mitigation, control and audit procedures who began consulting with sawmill and pellet mills employers in June.

MAG has developed a Dust Mitigation and Control Audit protocol, creating a scaled-down version for the province’s smaller sawmills. More information can be found here. The Wood Pellet Association of Canada and all of its British Columbia member mills have agreed to work with the BC Forest Safety Council to create a combustible dust audit tool customized for pellet mill operations.


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