Opinion: Burns Lake Sawmill & Workers’ Rights
By Tyson Kelsall, Culture Editor
Between the court cases, investigations, and public relations, workers and their families are being allowed to fall through the cracks. The Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake exploded two years ago in January 2012. Two years later, on 16 January 2014 WorkSafeBC produced an 88-page report finding that the fire was preventable. Despite this conclusion, the Crown decided not to press charges against the mill owners. Under public pressure, Christy Clarke decided to appoint somebody to review this decision. That somebody is her deputy minister, John Dyble. Perhaps it was soon-to-be ex-NDP leader Adrian Dix who quietly critiqued the decision best; as was reported by Gordon Hoekstra in the Vancouver Sun, “The government can’t investigate itself.”
Well, Dix was one word off, because although the government should not investigate itself, it certainly is. Dix has also come out demanding an independent probe of the mill itself and local families are supporting his call, Hoekstra reported.
However, as of now, the Oregon-based ownership of the Babine mill can at most face an administrative fine, which under current laws can only go as high as $500,000. Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour, called out the BC government in a press release saying, “Today, a detailed investigation report was released that clearly shows the incident was preventable, that risks were known and that necessary measures were not taken. And yet, in the face of an apparent wall of evidence, the crown has chosen to not lay charges.” Sinclair says workers confidence in provincial safety regulations are “shaken,” to no real surprise.
Since the explosion, which was said to have been caused by a build-up of sawdust that caught fire due to its proximity to the rotating belts that were part of a conveyor belt motor; some BC lumber companies, on 21 June 2013, implemented a program called the “Wood Dust Mitigation and Control Audit.” In theory, this will act as a mechanism for companies to be audited in the name of safety when it comes to dust created in mills. However, this tool is unenforceable by provincial law and is thus, completely voluntary. Considering the voluntary inaction currently occurring, is this really a solution? It might be helpful, but does it solve the issue? In fact, the ownership of Babine mill is not even really shouldering the responsibility of the Burns Lake tragedy, as they recently filed a complaint through the BC Supreme Court in an attempt to sue Toshiba, claiming that Toshiba built the motor that caused the explosion. Ian Bailey, reporting for the Globe and Mail, said within the specifics of the complaint Babine says, “As a result of the [explosion], caused by the negligence and/or breach of contract by the defendants… [Babine] has suffered damage, injury, loss and expense.”
WorkSafeBC has long been criticized as an organization that protects elites and large corporations, while punishing the workers. Although in theory, it is mandated to “provide fair compensation to replace workers’ loss of wages while recovering from injuries,” it should also be recognized that WorkSafeBC developed out of workers and their families giving up their right to sue their employers. Its defendants will say that it cuts out time in court and other resources; however, in this case there is certainly some kind of misconnection between workers and WorkSafe. It should also be noted that pressing charges in this case would be outside of WorkSafeBC’s jurisdiction, they provide the final report and the Crown has to make the final decision. WorkSafe, then, is acting as a stagnating apparatus, assuming any family or worker would have decided to take matters into their own legal battle, either right away or because of the present context.
In any case, it is time to squash the gaps between government, the justice system, WorkSafe and workers. The current movement toward safety taking a lesser seat in the political stadium to productivity is not worth the expense of the two lives lost in the explosion, nor the injuries to the 20 others. It is not worth the future human loss either. The new auditing tool is a nice framework, but if it is unenforceable, it will not serve a clear enough purpose. Let us put workers before profits, human safety before big business protection!