There are a few things emerging at the inquest into the deaths of Alan Little and Glenn Roche.
One of the first things that is becoming clear is that the mill was in dire need of being cleaned. Workers have testified that clean-up crews were being pilfered for production. Senior managers have yet to testify, but will likely have their own story as to how clean-up was handled.
The steel door was bent and broken because the guys had put their boots and their shoulders to it so many times. Wayne Cleghorn talked about a floor-mounted motor near his slasher that got completely covered in sawdust … three feet deep. The motor would keep running under the sawdust.
There has been testimony that in some areas the sawdust was routinely three to six inches deep.
Testimony among the workers is fairly consistent that clean up wasn’t a priority and things started going downhill when new management took over about two years before the explosion.
As I mentioned, however, those management types have yet to testify so a different story will likely emerge.
And, the other part of the story, which isn’t really new, is that despite all the sawdust, no one really knew the dangers of the fine airborne dust that came from milling beetle-killed wood.
Another aspect emerging from the inquest is that the workers, probably as much as the mill management, feared that the mill was on shaky ground financially.
As much as it’s easy to imagine senior managers sacrificing safety to push production, it seems it was on the workers’ minds too.
“We were concerned about keeping the mill open,” worker Lorne Hartford testified.
So how many corners were cut and who cut them? Who knows?
However, it also seems clear that workers, including Glenn Roche and Alan Little who were killed in the explosion and fire, were concerned about it. The question is whether those concerns were reported and then addressed.
Hartford was asked whether he knew about a worker’s right to refuse work if he felt it was too dangerous.
“We knew it was there,” Hartford said. “Our attitude was that if we did stuff like that, we would be out of a job.”
As I mentioned above, it wasn’t so much that they felt they would be fired, but that the mill itself would fold.
Refusing unsafe work is one of the toughest things any worker can do, especially in environments like a sawmill. And, after an event like the explosion and fire at Lakeland, it’s easy to suggest should have been done.
However, until you’re in that situation, it’s hard to say what should have been done. And, once again, no one really knew the danger associated with the fine “flour-like” dust that hung in the air like smoke. Although workers at Lakeland had, on a smaller scale, previously dealt with fires where the air itself was on fire.