When the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake exploded and burned in January of 2012, no one seemed to know how much of an explosive hazard the fine dust from beetle-killed timber posed.
When the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George exploded and burned three months later, we were becoming aware that it was a hazard but nothing really had changed.
During the inquest into the deaths of Glenn Roche and Alan Little, it has been referred to as an “emerging hazard.”
It is clear no one, from the B.C. Safety Authority, to WorkSafeBC, to the Prince George Fire Rescue Service, to mill management, to the union to the guys working on the floor, knew the danger.
The question isn’t whether they knew at the time, but, rather the question is ‘should’ someone have known.
The answer is yes.
While the risk of beetle-killed dust being explosive was specifically documented, the explosive nature of fine dust was well-documented.
Safety officials only needed to cast their eyes eastward to the Prairies where grain-handlers have known, for a long time, the explosive risk of dust in grain elevators.
Or they could have looked south.
On Monday, the inquest jury was shown a video prepared by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board regarding the threat fine dust poses in industrial environments of all kinds, from food products plants to rubber-producing plants to those producing pharmaceutical supplies and wood production. The video documented one instance where aluminum dust ignited, killing several people.
Research by the board indicated that between 1980 and 2005 in the United States fine dust caused 281 explosions and fires in plants, killing 119 people and injuring 718. Since 2005, another 71 dust explosions have occurred.
South of the border it’s not ignorance of the risk that is causing the explosions, but rather a lack of legislation compelling companies to deal with it.
Here in B.C., it seems that none of the agencies mandated with ensuring safety were aware of the risk.
It’s even more astounding to learn that parts of the B.C. Fire Code reference the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, which, according to U.S. Chemical Safety Board, outlines all the standards necessary to protect against fine dust explosions.
Should someone in British Columbia have known about the risk? Absolutely.