PRINCE GEORGE, BC (Canadian OH&S News)
Two workers have been killed in an explosion and inferno at a British Columbia sawmill — the second this year — prompting the province’s health and safety regulator to call a review.
Shortly after 9:30 pm on April 23, the 9-11 call centre in Prince George, British Columbia was inundated with calls about an explosion and fire in the town.
“At first there was actually several locations suggested. To some people it looked like a hotel was on fire, to some it looked like an apartment building, but it was beyond them. The fire was quite large initially,” says Corporal Craig Douglass, media relations for the Prince George RCMP.
An explosion at the Lakeland Mills Ltd sawmill, on the east end of the city, had set the building ablaze. Emergency crews from the RCMP, Prince George Fire Rescue and the BC Ambulance Service arrived to find the mill fully engulfed in flames, police report.
Northern Health, the regional healthcare authority, went to code orange, meaning all hands on deck, from 10 pm until 1:30 am.
The RCMP reports 24 workers were in the sawmill at the time of the explosion and 25 were working in the planer mill or on site. Northern Health treated 24 patients; as of Wednesday morning, eight remain in hospital in Prince George, Vancouver or Victoria, BC.
Alan Little, 43, succumbed to severe thermal burns early Wednesday morning at the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George, confirms Barb McLintock, coroner, strategic programs at the BC Coroners Service.
Glenn Francis Roche, 46, also succumbed to severe thermal burns on Wednesday evening. He had been medevaced to hospital in Edmonton.
Douglass says emergency teams had to scramble to make sure they had located and evacuated everyone from the building, a process made more complicated because there was no access to shift records.
“There was a triage centre set up by BC Ambulance and so people were brought there. We didn’t have time to check names, there’s always a lot of confusion when there’s life on the line,” Douglass says. “The power shut off to the property and computers, if they weren’t involved in the fire, were useless and that’s where they keep the shift records of who would be working and who’s not.”
When emergency crews arrived, the 300 square metre sawmill was too far gone to be salvaged, Douglass says, so the task became about containing the fire and making sure it did not spread to the nearby planer mill, the only other building on the site, which suffered only minor damage from debris thrown in the explosion.
The blast was so intense, Douglass says, that a door at a forestry museum almost a kilometre away was blown off its hinges.
WorkSafeBC orders review on combustible dust
“WorkSafeBC will immediately be issuing orders to all sawmill employers in B.C., directing them to conduct a full hazard identification, risk assessment, and safety review, with particular focus on combustible dust; dust accumulation; and potential ignition sources,” the health and safety regulator said in a statement released the day after the explosion. The employer must then develop a combustible dust control program based on their assessment, adding that while it does not have reasonable grounds to close sawmills, it would not hesitate to take action if necessary.
Follow-up inspections to ensure compliance would be done no later than May 9th, the release adds.
The explosion occurred just five days after WorkSafeBC released Burns Lake sawmill, the site of a similar fire in January this year that resulted in two worker fatalities.
“We recognize that there are similarities between the explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George —both are sawmills, dust was present in both, as in all sawmills, and both mills were working with beetle-infested wood,” said Roberta Ellis, senior vice-president of at WorkSafeBC, in the release. “However, we cannot speculate, based on these similarities, as to the cause of these events.”
Due to public and media interest in the incident, WorkSafeBC released inspection reports for the Lakeland Mills site dating back five years.
On February 6, WorkSafeBC inspectors discussed, with health and safety representatives for the employer and the workers, the wood dust that had accumulated throughout the mill and reviewed the requirement to prevent the accumulation of hazardous amounts of wood dust, the inspection report reads. No orders were issued at the time.
“The officer did not write an order because at that point in time they did not see non-compliance with the regulations,” Ellis says, because the officer was looking at dust levels that would affect workers’ respiratory health.
Cam McAlpine, spokesman for Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd, which owns the mill, says the area has not yet been released to the company to investigate.
“We won’t know until we get in there whether we can run the planer mill and how we could do that and that sort of thing,” McAlpine says. “Until we can get into the site we really can’t determine what the impact is going to be in the future.”