New safety rules set for sawmills

The B.C. Safety Authority makes recommendations aimed at preventing another mill dust explosion.

Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20

The B.C. Safety Authority has made a series of recommendations aimed at preventing another mill dust explosion like the ones that killed four workers in two separate incidents last winter.

The changes are intended to cover pellet plants and other wood processing facilities as well as sawmills. Researchers compared the explosion hazard of different kinds of dust, finding wood “flour” can be a more powerful explosive than coal dust when it is dry and exposed to an ignition source.

Two workers died and 20 others were injured when an explosion and fire tore through the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake on Jan. 20, 2012. On April 23, a similar explosion killed two workers and injured 22 more at Lakeland Mills in Prince George.

Investigators ruled out natural gas, oil and other fuel sources, leaving fine, dry dust produced from milling wood. WorksafeBC concluded that the likely ignition source was hot electric motor and gear reducer equipment running wood waste conveyors in low, confined areas of the mills.

Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad said the BCSA team has worked with the industry and employees to develop new rules, some of which use techniques developed in underground coal mining. The recommendations call for changes to the layout of mills so hot equipment is easier to keep clean and is separated from sources of dust.

“I think this will be very positive for the workers, who I know have been very worried about what happened, both at Babine and at Lakeland,” Rustad said. “The authority is looking to do a 60-day consultation period with industry to meet those standards, and then asking industry to bring forward an implementation plan for each of their facilities by mid-June.”

Babine Forest Products issued a statement Tuesday, saying it supports the direction of the recommendations.

“Consistent with the BCSA recommendations, the new Babine sawmill will contain state-of-the-art equipment and systems to collect wood dust at the machine source,” the statement said. “It will have equipment, building and floor plans designed to facilitate clean-up and reduce areas where wood dust can accumulate.”

Company officials declined further comment, as Crown prosecutors continue their review to see if the incidents warrant charges against the companies or individuals under the Workers Compensation Act. Negligence and other criminal charges were ruled out after an earlier police investigation.

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