Workers at Lakeland Mills prior to the April 23, 2012 explosion felt the mill was in jeopardy, financially, and that they had to focus on keeping the mill operating, according to employee Lorne Hartford.
“We were struggling with keeping the place running, we were concerned with keeping the doors of the mill open … Management was struggling to keep the mill operating too,” he told a six-person coroner’s jury examining the deaths of Alan Little and Glenn Roche as a result of the explosion and fire that destroyed the mill.
As a consequence of that struggle, Hartford said, less priority was put on clean up and more on production.
“Generally, the mill was less in clean-up mode,” he said. “It was in a very messy state.”
Hartford testified that in parts of the mill dust accumulations of between three to six inches were commonplace. He added that often workers on clean up crews were pulled off the job to work in production.
Hartford, a shop steward, works in the energy system, which is housed in a different building than the actual mill. However, he would go through the mill at least once a day.
He said the build up dust was a problem, which was exacerbated when the dust collection system plugged up.
“When the dust collector went down, in about five minutes you would see (dust in the air), after 10 minutes you shouldn’t be in it, and after 30 minutes it was a time bomb,” he said, however adding later that he was worried about a fire more-so than an explosion. Boxes were eventually set up in the mill with paper dust masks for workers to use when dust levels got high.
He added the general cleanliness of the mill was often a discussion among workers and that Roche was often one of the men leading the discussion.
“Glenn would literally pound his fist on the table talking about this stuff,” Hartford said. “Glenn was one of the key speakers in the lunchroom.”
United Steelworkers legal counsel, John Rogers, asked Hartford whether the workers were aware of their right to refuse to work if they felt it was unsafe.
“We knew it was there,” Hartford said. “Our attitude was that if we did stuff like that, we would be out of a job. We were concerned about keeping the mill open.”
Hartford said there was a safety committee that toured the mill on a regular basis asking workers to identify problems but that workers stopped giving concerns to the safety committee because issues listed didn’t get addressed.
Hartford went off shift at 5:30 a.m. the day of the explosion and said the state of the mill was “utter chaos, the worst I’ve ever seen it. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned up for a couple of weeks.”
When pressed by Lakeland Mills’ legal counsel Gavin Marshall about a quote Hartford made to the Prince George Citizen the day after the explosion stating “it was a clean mill,” Hartford said he was referring to a period prior to about 2010.
It was around that time that supervisor Mike Roche, Glenn Roche’s father, left the mill.
“Mike Roche was super,” Hartford said. “Before he retired, he would make sure we cleaned up the mill.”
He said it was after Mike Roche left that clean up crews started getting pilfered for production.
Marshall also took Hartford to task for comments he made to WorksafeBC on February 28, 2014 that were apparently not as emphatic about his concern about dust levels as ones made at the inquest.
“I don’t know what I said back then,” Hartford said. “But I’ll tell you right now, without a doubt … that weekend the air quality was the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Marshall acknowledged that the problem of the finer, drier dust from mountain pine beetle was an emerging hazard at that time and asked Hartford what WorksafeBC should have done with respect to the “emerging hazard.”
“WorksafeBC should be the ones in the know,” he said. “WorksafeBC should know what’s going on. I’m still baffled by it.”