Local mills improve safety after PG explosion

Mills in Williams Lake have beefed up safety measures, in light of the recent sawmill explosions.

Mills in Williams Lake have beefed up safety measures, in light of the recent sawmill explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George, and a directive from WorkSafe BC issued last Wednesday requiring all sawmill employers to undertake a comprehensive risk assessment.

Sigurdson Forest Products has shut down its operations as of April 26 to carry out a major clean up, while Tolko and West Fraser held meetings with  managers, instructing them to carry out safety inspections. West Fraser curtailed some of its operations.

“We only process beetle kill. After the Babine fire we were on notice and determining steps and inspections, but after Prince George we decided to be proactive,” Sigurdson mill manager Ted Beddington says.

The mill employs around 40 workers and during the shut-down 11-man crews have come to work, but spent their entire shifts cleaning.

“They have been going through every nook and cranny. We used water instead of air so we don’t create that air-borne dust to start,” Beddington explains.

Normally every shift already had one employee dedicated to cleaning, and that person will continue in that role. However, on Friday the mill hired a new employee who will be solely dedicated to dust control. That employee will work Friday nights after the planer ends until Monday night.

“All he’ll do is make sure the tresses are clean, top to bottom,” Beddington says, adding Sigurdon’s Mill is lucky because most of its operations are outdoors so air is going through the mill all the time.

Only the planer is in an enclosure.

Routinely workers spray the logs and boards with water as they go through the machines.

“That makes a big difference,” Beddington says.

Tolko Industries Ltd.’s vice president of forestry and environment says the explosions have rocked the industry, in terms of the short amount of time between the two explosions, and the catastrophic and tragic nature of both events.

Bob Fleet has been in the industry for 35 years and does not remember an explosion ever taking place.

“Routinely Tolko’s mills do monthly inspections under its joint health and safety regulations, but the reality is Prince George and Burns Lake thought they had pretty good plans in place too,” he says.

Fleet says Tolko normally does inspections around air-borne sawdust, ignition sources, fire extinguishers, flip and pull hazards.

“These inspections are really focused at crawling right up on the rafters and looking for sawdust and then vacuuming it up. We do that regularly.”

There are other things Tolko’s done at its mills, Fleet says, including at its Quesnel mill, where a humidification system was installed.

“The system takes the sawdust out of the air by increasing the humidity. It’s an example that all industry could do if we found sawdust to be the risk that people are starting to think it might be.”

Speculation continues around whether there is an added risk due to processing pine beetle wood.

Fleet says industry encourages WorkSafe BC to step forward with the Burns Lake explosion findings as soon as possible.

“If they could do that without compromising the investigation it would help.”

The peculiarity is that for 25 years there hasn’t been a similar sawmill explosion and in four months there have been two, Fleet says.

“Both mills are processing fairly high amounts of mountain pine beetle kill lodgepole pine. That wood comes to the mills much drier than if you were processing green Douglas fir. We know it seems to produce a little bit more, little bit finer quality of sawdust than processing green fir or even green lodge pole pine.”

West Fraser says over the last number of years it has done a lot of dust collection and reduction work at its mills.

“Since the Burns Lake incident, we went around to all of our mills and conducted thorough risk and hazard assessments using third-party expertise,” says solid wood vice president Ray Ferris, adding where needed some mills have curtailed operations to address issues both after Burns Lake and subsequently after Lakeland.

The company continues to spend lots of dollars to ensure that issues related to dust are remote.

“We continue this week to carry out a number of divisional and corporate inspections, using third party expertise to ensure ourselves that our mills are safe and people can come to work with confidence that those types of events can’t re-occur.”

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