01/31/2012 04:47 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Sawdust problems recurrent at destroyed B.C. mill, but information wasn't shared

VANCOUVER - Two separate safety monitoring agencies flagged sawdust as a concern at a northern British Columbia sawmill that exploded, but it doesn't appear they shared the information about the potential hazard.

Dry dust particles played a role in igniting and fuelling an electrical fire that resulted in a half million dollars worth of damage last February at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, west of Prince George, the B.C. Safety Authority said in an incident report.

It was raised again as an issue by WorkSafe BC in a report written only weeks before the January explosion found dust levels in the facility's basement rated more than twice the acceptable level for workers' health.

A spokeswoman for WorkSafe BC said her agency only recently received the safety authority's information about last year's fire.

A spokesman for the safety authority noted his agency is not responsible for workplace conditions, but rather, the equipment there.

But the ombudsman for the B.C. Forest Safety Council said Tuesday the common denominator of problematic sawdust could have been dealt with sooner.

Roger Harris said an apparent lack of communication about the recurrent hazard within the mill reminded him of a review he released last July around tree planters who were forced to live in squalor.

He noted there were gaps between agencies that resulted in an overall system failure to catch the problem until far too late.

"Even in a modern-day time like right now, if you don't have something that looks at things from an oversight role, things just slip," he said.

"I do think there's a place for (an oversight body.)"

Workers who escaped the sudden blast and resulting inferno at the mill on the evening of Jan. 20 have since indicated they were worried about the excessive sawdust build-up that had accumulated over the past several years and believe it fuelled the blaze.

An investigation has only just begun to pinpoint the exact cause of the explosion, which killed two men and sent 19 to hospital including four people in critical condition.

The BC Safety Authority released details Tuesday into the February 2011 fire that prompted the mill to shut down for two weeks.

An investigation found the blaze was caused when an electrical spark in an equipment motor likely ignited some sawdust, starting a larger fire amongst more dust in nearby electrical cables.

Stephen Hinde, the authority's safety manager for electrical technology, said he doesn't believe the nature and causes of last year's fire caused the devastating explosion at the mill earlier this month.

"In and of itself, the event in 2011 did not release enough energy to explain the magnitude of damage that we have seen in 2012," Hinde told reporters during a technical briefing.

Hinde said a safety officer returned to the mill after necessary repairs were completed and verified the fixes were made appropriately.

"In the opinion of the safety officer at the time, the repairs were effective and there was no need for follow-up action," he said, adding the purview of the authority was specifically around the repair of electrical equipment.

Hinde said the regulation of sawdust was not in the authority's jurisdiction.

The Babine mill was ordered by the WorkSafe BC to submit a notice of compliance by Jan. 31 after an inspection in November looked specifically at dust samples in relation to worker's health.

It found levels in the basement cleanup area were more than twice the acceptable level for an eight-hour exposure, suggesting the current ventilation systems and water misters "were not adequately protecting some workers."

Donna Freeman, a spokeswoman for WorkSafe BC, said there is a memorandum of understanding with the BC Safety Authority that means their investigators inform the authority or other groups about pertinent information.

A follow-up query to the BC Safety Authority about information sharing was not returned.

The town's fire chief, Jim McBride, said his crews were back at the site Tuesday morning to ensure a flare-up in sawdust in the bowels of the flattened mill didn't get out of hand.

McBride said it's outside the roles and responsibilities of his volunteer fire fighting crew to do inspections or investigations around sawdust.

The last time his team was called upon to talk about a broader role was about a decade ago, he said.

"The mill has changed hands a couple of times, and for one reason or another the (current) owners felt they had it under control," he said, adding at the same time he was never denied access to take a look if required.

Failures appear to have occurred at least three different levels, said George Astrakianakis, an assistant professor who specializes in occupational and environmental health at the University of British Columbia.

"The way things should work, ideally, is the employer has responsibilities, the workers have responsibilities and the regulator has responsibilities," he said, adding it wouldn't be surprising if there had been a "silo effect" in the Burns Lake situation around information sharing.

"Should there be, perhaps, a conduit of communication between the Safety Authority and WorkSafe BC, perhaps yes. Perhaps it might have made a huge difference."