Sawmill towns on edge
VANCOUVER—Workers heading to shifts at British Columbia sawmills after two recent, catastrophic explosions are worrying that the dust fluttering in the air like a sack of dropped flour means they’re walking into a powder keg.
Four deaths and scores of traumatic burns and injuries have resulted from the fiery conflagrations at the north-central mills, which were processing trees so destroyed by the mountain pine beetle they were long dead before harvest.
But until that happens, employees will be on edge, said a seven-year mill worker in Williams Lake.
“The accumulated dust all of a sudden starts to shake down, kind of like when you dump flour off the countertop . . . and that is as volatile as gasoline,” said Dean Colville, who worked in a Tolko Industries plant until moving into the union office last fall.
“There’s a lot of fear out in our workplaces right now, wondering if we could be next.”
WorkSafe BC has notified all mills they have fewer than two weeks to conduct a thorough inspection and implement an effective combustible dust control problem.
Follow-up inspections will be conducted by May 9 to evaluate whether there is sufficient compliance.
“We’ve heard from workers, we’ve heard from unions, we’ve heard from employers,” said Roberta Ellis, senior vice-president of corporate services with WorkSafe B.C.
“There’s a high level of nervousness and concern.”
Mill workers say they’ve noticed an increased quantity of particles floating in the air in recent years.
Colville said he believes production of pine beetle-killed wood in the B.C. Interior has sped up since about 2005, and the heavier reliance on dead trees has been, in part, aimed at mitigating the risks of forest fires.
When he began working as a utility rover in 2004, he estimated there was a 50-50 split of moister green wood and dry pine beetle wood being processed.
Now, he said the later accounts for as much as 90 percent.
“The wood is so dry, the dust is so fine, that I don’t think anyone really knew the potentials for these serious, almost bomb-like situations,” he remarked.