Manager at Interfor's Hammond Cedar mill welcomes WorkSafe BC's combustible dust review, says sawmills cutting pine beetle-killed wood face 'significantly higher risk' than mills cutting green logs

MAPLE RIDGE, British Columbia , April 26, 2012 () – Maple Ridge sawmills are awaiting orders from WorkSafeBC for a hazard investigation and safety review focusing on combustible dust and potential ignition sources following a deadly fire in Prince George this week.

It was the second deadly mill explosion in B.C. this year.

However, two local mill managers say the conditions that may have caused the two fatal blasts at Interior mills aren’t present here.

You can’t compare an Interior sawmill that cuts pine-beetle-killed wood with a West Coast cedar operation, says Tom Lang, manager at Interfor’s Hammond Cedar Division in Maple Ridge.

Trees that have been killed by the beetle have lost their moisture because sap has stopped flowing. That presents a “significantly higher risk” than cutting green logs.

Lang added the Hammond mill has a centralized dust collection system and that Interfor also did a safety audit immediately following the explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20 that killed two workers.

Two more died in the Lakeland Mill explosion in Prince George on Monday.

Interfor is concerned and welcomes “any new guidelines or requirements that are appropriate,” to ensure they don’t happen at Hammond cedar, Lang said.

“It is extremely important to us that our employees feel confident that they are working at a safe operation.”

At Twin Rivers Cedar, part of the Waldun Forest Products, east Maple Ridge, company comptroller Phil Overin said the shake and shingle operation doesn’t create as much dust as a sawmill. Plus shake mill operates in the open air.

“All of our wood is quite wet. It comes out of the river.”

He also hadn’t heard yet what WorkSafe will be asking of local mills.

The mill, which employs about 100 people, is already WorkSafe certified, a process requiring annual WorkSafe inspections, he pointed out.

“We’re one of the safest sites on the coast.”

WorkSafeBC vice-president Roberta Ellis said in a release that WorkSafe recognizes 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.”

“There is a common factor here, and we’re all aware of it, and it’s sawdust,” Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said earlier in the week. “So although we don’t know what caused the initial fires or explosions, we know that sawdust may be a factor.”

Maple Ridge fire chief Dane Spence said there have been two small fires at the Hammond mill in the duct work in the past few years, while a larger fire took place last August at Watkins Sawmills, on 287th Street in Maple Ridge.

The duct work in the Hammond mill is designed to withstand a fire.

“It’s a known hazard and they deal with it accordingly,” he said.

“Any combustible dust, you must manage the build up of that combustible dust.”

Lang said the small Hammond fires didn’t originate in the dust system, but that flames got up into the pipes.

“Full investigations were completed by our safety committee and preventative recommendations were put forward,” he added.

WorkSafe communications officer Megan Johnston said sawmills were to start receiving their orders Thursday to do the safety reviews, “with particular focus on combustible dust, dust accumulation and potential ignition sources.”

With 340 mills around the province, it may take a couple days for all the mills to be notified.

WorkSafeBC says it will follow up to ensure compliance.

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