WorkSafe B.C. and union officials caution against speculating over Babine Forest Products dust levels and fatal explosion, fire

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , January 26, 2012 () – Workers at the Burns Lake sawmill, destroyed by fire after an explosion last Friday, were exposed to high levels of sawdust late last year.

A routine inspection by WorkSafe B.C. determined that the levels of sawdust tested in late November were higher than those considered safe over an eight-hour shift.

"Workers in various positions in the sawmill are exposed to pine wood dust in excess of the exposure limit, which suggests that the current ventilation systems and water misters are not adequately protecting some workers," said the inspection report, dated Dec. 28.

But WorkSafe B.C. officials on Wednesday were making no links with those levels to the explosion and fire that killed two and injured 18.

"There's a huge desire to correlate this occupational exposure measurement to combustible atmosphere results and you can't do that easily," said Al Johnson, WorkSafe B.C.'s saw-mill safety expert. He said the sawdust is measured primarily for the purposes of limiting the workers' exposure to it. There were no immediate changes ordered and the mill had until the end of January to reduce the levels.

And Steve Hunt, director of Western Canada for the United Steelworkers, which represents the Burns Lake workers, said: "I learned a long time ago you don't rely on rumours about workplace accidents, you rely on facts. Some people are speculating, but I won't."

The Burns Lake mill, run by Babine Forest Products, was shut by a "significant" fire last March 9, caused by an electrical failure, the company said.

The mill, audited by the Forest Practices Board in September, "showed a high standard of forest operations," according to the Jan. 12, 2012, report.

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