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October 28, 2017 3:24 am

Lessons learned at Babine and Lakeland

Thursday, July 16, 2015 @ 3:45 AM
By Bill Phillips

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 billphillips1@mac.com








Such shameful, needless loss of lives. Back in 1991 I was working at an unrelated sawmill, and even then (24 years ago) it was known that sawdust was a fire/health issue. Mills have long been chastized (by former WCB and their own OH&S units) for allowing such conditions to get out of hand. We were forced to shut down production on a few occasions (WCB inspections) in order to clean up and repair dust collection systems.
A relation of mine, who worked at Lakeland had told me that there had already been formal complaints lodged Prior to the explosion.
The fault in these cases lies with the industry itself, which ultimately includes the mills/worksafe/OH&S and the workers (pretty much in that order). Workers tend to fear retribution for refusing to work in unsafe conditions. Worksafe tends to be lax in their inspections and responding to worker complaints. Mill management have been known to put off clean up and repairs in favor of production and OH&S personnel can get complacent too.
While blame will not be laid in these explosions now, there are most certainly people walking around today who know that their inaction played a part in this.
We ALL go to work, expecting to come home at the end of the day. Nobody gets paid enough to be injured or killed on the job. Do not let these men’s deaths be in vain. Everyone at every job needs to stop now and again and remember that we can all do our part to keep each other safe. Sometimes it may take a very brave soul to put their foot down and say what needs to be said, or go do what needs to be done. Absolutely no deaths are acceptable on the job.
That being said, my heart felt sorrow goes out to the survivors who have to live on after witnessing these tragedies and to the families whose loved one’s did not come home at the end of the day. I have witnessed death in the workplace too, it haunts me all these years later.


We where told as Machine Shop Apprintices in 1961 any kind of Dust Concentrations like Iron,Grain,Wood Dust and so on can become dangeres and explosive and that was in 1961, has no one ever known this running Sawmills ? 2 Lines I used to read in many Mills when I drove in “Shift A so many BFT and Shift B so many BFT and so many Days with no Accidents ! Production, Production, keep it running.

The same Work Safe who is deemed ‘essential’ for the people of BC, knew of the dangers and did nothing. If this were a crime… a murder or an vehicle accident, they would be charged with ‘accessory’. They are a bunch of roving thugs who pick and choose their targets. Have the names been published of the WS people who were contacted of the dangerous conditions, and did nothing?

What about other mills through out BC who were running beetle kill (dry) lumber during the same period. Any indication of explosions or fires??

I don’t know if and when they will actually get to the bottom of this issue, however it seems to me that these are huge explosions to be caused by dust. Wasn’t there some indication of methane gas being in the area of the Lakeland explosion?? Seems to me Lakeland (or part of it) was built on an old dump site. Was there any indication of methane gas in the Burns Lake incident??

Perhaps a combination of methane and dust could be the culprit. Who knows.

“but no one seemed to know it was an explosive hazard”? Really???
I don’t own a flour mill, but I know it’s dust is explosive, so I would certainly assume that bone dry wood dust would be!! And I am not in the wood industry!! Grade 8 science taught me that!! That is the most ridiculous excuse for corporate non-action I have ever heard, and seems like they’re buying it!!!!
I am so sorry for the families and the community for this tragedy, they should not have to hear such stupidity from those that caused this incident. I call it an incident because it really was not an accident. It would have been foreseen if people were put before production

After knowing about the explosion in Burns Lake there should have been no reason to let this happen at Lakeland in Prince George. Worksafe, management and this Government kept saying they did not know what caused the explosion and fire but in my opinion they knew a lot more than they were letting on.

Were there not reports that some of the workers at Babine smelled natural gas before the explosion? Perhaps there was a leak if they used natural gas on site to fire kilns? The fact is that settled sawdust on its own will not explode. It has to have something that blows it into the air, and a source of ignition, to make it explode. Worksafe thinks that they know what that source of ignition was, but there’s no way they can be certain.

What’s lost in all this exercise of trying to pin the blame on someone is another salient fact. Mills do not exist to provide employment. They exist to manufacture lumber, and to continue to do so, and provide the cherished employment, their costs have to be able to be recoverable fully in price. It’s all to the well and good to pontificate how some company should have done this or should have done that. But no company can do anything unless it can get the money to do it. And it can’t do that unless it’s profitable. If it isn’t profitable it won’t have the necessary financial reserves it needs to do something which is going to add little or nothing towards making it so. And if it is profitable, it will be able to borrow from its banker to do what needs to be done, but only if it can show the banker that the repayments aren’t going to make it less profitable. Christy’s crowd, and her opposition, are great at ordering mills to do this or do that. But they’re aren’t anywhere near so dictatorial when it comes to ordering bankers to provide the money for this new exercise in social well-being and workplace safety.

I am of the same opinion oldman1 and 1canada. WorkPlace BC knew fine dry sawdust was explosive. “Two years before a pair of B.C. sawmill explosions that this year killed four workers, WorkSafe BC warned “a layer of dust as thin as a dime” in a sawmill could cause an explosion hazard.”

www. theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/two-years-before-deadly-explosions-warnings-went-out-about-sawdust-danger/article4103423/

IMO, a public inquiry was denied by this government to ensure it could not be found legally complicit in the 4 deaths and 42 injured in the two sawmill explosions. I believe WorkSafe BC screwed up on inspections, enforcement, and the investigations, where charges should have been laid against them, and this irresponsible government. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

socredible–I think you should read from The Citizen may12/2015 – Lakeland internal probe into blast inconclusive- because it tells you the most likely cause. I also posted on march 9/2015 what my concerns were about what may have caused the blast.

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