Profit drive kills woodworkers in British Columbia

Climate change may also factor into string of deadly accidents
Photo: deckhand

Another explosion has occurred in a wood processing mill in B.C. Three workers were injured at the Pinnacle Renewable Energy pellet manufacturing plant in Burns Lake on Oct. 9. The company makes wood pellets out of waste wood, which are then used in industrial processes or in domestic heating.

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A report on the incident in the Vancouver Sun reveals that over the past year Pinnacle has received a string of fines for unsafe conditions in three of its plants specifically for wood dust accumulations. The fines were levied by WorkSafeBC, the workers’ compensation board for the province.

An earlier report revealed that seven of ten wood pellet manufacturers in B.C. failed WorkSafeBC inspections between April and June of this year. The infractions consisted of accumulations of wood dust at risk of fire or explosion, inadequate dust-control programs and the unsafe use of high-pressure air to clean up dust. The information was obtained by the Sun through a freedom of information request.

Unsafe wood processing mills

The latest explosion has renewed concerns and protests by workers in B.C.’s sawmill industry following two mill explosions in 2012 that each killed two workers and injured dozens more.

In Burns Lake, the Babine Forest Products sawmill blew up on Jan. 20, 2012. Three months later on April 23, Lakeland Mills lit up in Prince George, an industrial city of 80,000 in the geographic centre of B.C. Burns Lake, with a population of 4,000, is two hours west of Prince George by car.

The B.C. government has refused calls for a public inquiry into the 2012 explosions. Families of the victims had pressed hard for an inquiry, forming the group Families United for Justice to press their case. They say they have little confidence in reassurances from government and industry that the chronic inattention to dust accumulations in sawmills will be addressed.

One month before that announcement, the government prosecution service decided that neither Babine nor Lakeland would face criminal charges. This decision flew in the face of WorkSafeBC investigations into conditions in the mills that revealed exceptional neglect of accumulations of sawdust.

Gary Mason, writing in the Globe and Mail, described the conditions in the Babine sawmill as “a bomb waiting to go off.” He wrote, “It’s a wonder the place didn’t explode into flames long before Jan. 20, 2012, such were the abhorrent working conditions at the plant.”

As subsequent reports revealed, forest companies have for years received multiple warnings that dust conditions in sawmills were dangerous and deteriorating and should be cleaned up. Babine and Lakeland were each fined this year for the 2012 disasters, $725,000 and $1.01 million, respectively. But that's cold comfort to survivors.

Ronda Roche's husband, Glenn, was killed at Babine, and she helped to found Families United for Justice. She is deeply disappointed at the small amount of the fine and the time it took to issue both penalties.

She told the Vancouver Sun in July, “It is very clear that failures in our system continue to disappoint our families. The reality of ever seeing justice or accountability for the death and injuries of Lakeland employees as well as for employees of Babine Forest Products continues to be unlikely based on the outcomes to this point of time.”

On the two-year anniversary of the Lakeland explosion, families of the dead and injured victims in Prince George as well as the United Steelworkers union and many First Nations organizations spearheaded a Walk for Justice, in which several hundred people took part to condemn the failure to hold a public inquiry. They also demanded the application of federal workplace safety law Bill C-45, which was adopted in 2004 to provide new rules for criminal liability of organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others concerning workplace safety. Termed the Westray Law, it is named after the 1992 explosion of the Westray coal mine in Nova Scotia, where company directors escaped criminal liability for neglect leading to an explosion that killed 26 miners.

Injured workers speak out

Bruce Germyn does not mince words when he describes what he thinks went wrong at the Lakeland mill when it exploded. He was one of 24 workers on shift when the disaster happened. He received severe burns to his face.

Lakeland and Babine “literally got away with murder,” Germyn said in a telephone interview.

He and other workers at Lakeland said they had complained for years about the sawdust build-ups inside the mill. Their concerns were heightened after the explosion at Babine. “I told our managers after the explosion at Burns Lake that we would be next,” Germyn said, adding that workers in his mill had taken to tracing safety warnings in the accumulated dust. According to Germyn, the company stated that disciplinary measures would be taken against any worker caught in the act.

What about the safety committee in the mill? Labour legislation in B.C., as in other provinces in Canada, requires industrial workplaces to have a safety committee composed of company and employee representatives who meet regularly. Germyn describes that set-up as flawed.

“Our safety committee was run by management. There was little time for meetings and we had little power we could exercise. The company’s mandate was clear: production. There was too little time for anything else.”

Germyn told Global TV’s documentary program 16X9, , “No one ever listened. When you told them something, it was, ‘Nope, it’s our way or the highway.’”

Stephen Hunt, western Canada director for the Steelworkers union, told the program that the danger stems from “the continuing push to get production out the door.”

The decline of safety conditions in B.C.’s sawmills can be traced back to two big developments—concession collective agreements over work scheduling signed in the year 2000 and onward, and warming winter temperatures that have allowed a mountain pine beetle epidemic to largely destroy the vast pine forests of B.C.

No time to clean sawdust from sawmills

The agreements made in the lumber industry in 2000 opened up sawmills to round-the-clock operations as well as on-call shift scheduling. That change was bitterly contested in a lengthy strike, but it was not successful. Previously, mills would run five days per week on two-shift operations, leaving the nights and weekends for clean-up. Now many began to run with two ten-hour shifts Monday to Thursday and three 12-hour shifts Friday to Sunday. That left less and less time for cleaning.

The concessions on shifts resulted from the relentless drive by sawmill companies to keep profits flowing. The past 20-plus years have seen companies consolidate and invest in labour-saving equipment. Many mills have closed.

Germyn says, “Lakeland used to operate five days per week. Then the company got greedy. The banks wanted more lumber produced if they were to continue to loan money. That’s when our mill really went down the tube.”

The threat of job loss is a major pressure on workers to put up with declining safety and scheduling standards. Since the early 1980s, lumber production in B.C. has fluctuated around a median of 30 million cubic meters per year. Employment in wood manufacturing, however, has dropped sharply. The number of jobs decreased from 49,000 in 2001 to 27,000 in 2012. In logging, the number of jobs has fallen from 25,000 to 18,000 during that same time.

In 2011, there were 247 mills in B.C. That’s down from 385 mills in 2003. The number of medium and large sawmills in the province in 2011 was 77, down from 131 in 1990. According to a 2011 report by the BC Government Employees’ Union, 70 sawmills were closed between 2001 and 2011, taking away 36,000 jobs.

Another cause of job loss in wood manufacturing in B.C. is the increased offshoring of work through raw log exports. To the end of August this year, 4.29 million cubic metres of raw logs were exported from the province, compared to 2.34 million cubic metres total in 2000. A record was set in 2013 with exports of 6.67 million cubic metres .

The power of union workplace safety committees — including the ultimate right of workers to walk off a job they consider an immediate threat to their health and safety — has correspondingly declined with the concessionary trend and rising threats to jobs. The injury rate for workers in B.C.’s wood manufacturing industries is nearly 50 per cent higher than industry as a whole. There were 750 serious injury claims in 2012.

Meanwhile, profits have rebounded nicely for wood manufacturers in 2013 and they are holding up in 2014.

Germyn says, “The whole industry has been playing the card of plant closures and job losses ever since the rough times of the 1990s. The government backs them in this.”

The profit drive meets climate change in a perfect storm

The pine forests of B.C. have been destroyed by a pine beetle infestation caused by warming temperatures. The winter temperatures that kept the insect’s population in check for millenia are no longer low enough due to climate change. All the multiple species of pine forests in western North America are in serious decline as a result of the beetle’s proliferation.

Wood processing companies are racing to process the dying trees while they are still salvageable. That wood is drier and therefore produces more dangerous dust in the manufacturing process.

Families United for Justice vows it will continue to fight for a public inquiry and will continue to advocate for the surviving injured workers.

Those workers are getting shoddy treatment at the hands of WorksafeBC, including threats to reduce or cut off benefits. Their right to return to their jobs is also being challenged.

Both mills are being rebuilt and will operate with fewer than half their pre-explosion staff levels thanks to investment in new technologies, funded in part by government grants. Lakeland, at least, is saying that collective agreement provisions that compensate workers for job losses due to technological change do not apply because it was an industrial accident, not a business decision, that prompted the installation of new equipment and resulting job cuts.

Throughout western North America, the capitalist system has left vulnerable the communities that are economically dependent on the forest industry. Climate change has ushered in the pine beetle epidemic and levelled entire forests. Clearcut logging practices have created their own destructive legacy. Now a frenetic drive to squeeze out the last available profit from dying pine forests is creating unprecedented dangers for the workers who cut and process the trees. Sawmills are closing, as the last of the forests is logged.

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