Lessons learned at Babine and Lakeland
Call it fate. Call it bad luck.
Or maybe it’s just circumstance.
Both men who died at the Babine Forest Products explosion and fire January 20, 2012 were there because of decisions they had made shortly before the blast.
It was Carl Charlie’s day off but when he was asked to take an extra shift, he agreed. If he hadn’t answered that call, he would likely wouldn’t have been there that night.
Robert Luggi had been looked over for a lead hand position in late 2011. When he complained, he was moved from the A-shift to the B-shift where he could take training as a lead hand. They moved him to the B-shift at Christmas 2011, a month before the explosion that would take his life.
Both men were just trying to get ahead … provide for their families.
If fate had put Luggi and Charlie in a different spot that night, chances are someone else would have been in their place at the mill and those gathering this week for inquest into their deaths, would still be gathering.
The inquest has heard that this was an explosion first, followed by a fire. The force of the explosion was so great that it blew a huge 1,000-pound fan, located in an exterior wall of the building, 60 feet into the yard. Smaller pieces were blown even farther.
There are plenty of similarities between what happened at Babine and what happened at Lakeland Mills three months later.
The workers at both mills were focused on increasing production, trying to best themselves and other crews and dust build up was a problem and WorksafeBC had been in contact with the mills.
WorksafeBC investigator Paul Orr, who also investigated the Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion and fire, concluded that the Babine incident was a dust explosion, just like Lakeland.
The ignition source at Babine was an overheated v-belt guard on a conveyor under the eliminator tables, similar to Lakeland where an overheated gear-reducer was named as the culprit.
At Babine there was a fire just a couple of weeks before the January 20 explosion and in February of 2011 there was a small dust explosion at the mill. The story was the same at Lakeland, small fires and a dust explosion prior to the fatal one.
Even though U.S. dust explosion expert Amy Cronin has testified at both inquests that dust explosions are completely “preventable,” that plenty of information on dust fires, including a U.S. Chemical Safety Board video, were available prior to 2012, and that any mill owner should have been aware, no one in B.C. seemed to have been. And that goes beyond mill owners to the various safety agencies in the province.
Everyone knew dust was a fire hazard and a breathing hazard, but no one seemed to know it was an explosive hazard. And even though everyone knew it was a fire and a breathing hazard, it seemed to be one of those hazards that everyone tolerated. Workers at both mills were given masks to wear. At Babine, in some locations, it was mandatory to wear a mask because the dust was so thick.
In both mills it was commonplace for the baghouse, the system akin to a huge vacuum cleaner sucking up dust from the saws, to go down. We learned at the Lakeland inquest, and it’s the same at Babine, that having the baghouse system go down was not enough of a reason to halt production.
That, thankfully, has changed. At the new Lakeland mill it’s automatic … when the baghouse system goes down it automatically locks out the saws.
We may finally be learning, even if that learning curve is dreadfully slow, after the fact, and tragically expensive.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org