VANCOUVER – The agency that investigates workplace accidents in British Columbia will undergo a significant overhaul to ensure cases involving potential wrongdoing can be successfully prosecuted in court, the provincial government announced Tuesday, following botched probes into two fatal sawmill explosions.
The province outlined the changes as it released a report examining both the risks associated with sawmill dust and, more broadly, how workplace injuries and fatalities should be investigated by WorkSafeBC.
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The report, which the government said would be fully implemented, includes more than 40 recommendations, including specialized teams that would work with prosecutors and police, increased inspections, and a wider array of penalties.
Earlier this year, Crown prosecutors announced there would be no charges in connection with two fatal mill explosions in 2012, which each killed two workers. The blasts — first in Burns Lake and then in Prince George — have both been linked to dust from dry, pine beetle-infested wood.
In each case, the Crown declined to approve charges in part because of concerns that evidence collected by WorkSafeBC wouldn’t be admissible.
WorkSafeBC has a range of special powers, such as warrantless seizures, that are designed to allow it to determine the cause of an accident. However, that sort of evidence isn’t admissible in court.
To avoid that apparent conflict, Tuesday’s report said the department that handles injury and death investigations should be split in two.
If investigators determine a case could lead to a prosecution, it would be handed off to a separate team that would start over, obtaining warrants and warning employers of their charter rights. The teams would work directly with prosecutors from the criminal justice branch and a special constable would be assigned to co-ordinate with police.
“It is absolutely essential that once there is a recognition that there is potential for prosecution, the case begins from that point,” said Labour Minister Shirley Bond.
The report also recommends a range of new measures to target employers found to be violating occupational health and safety regulations.
Those include the introduction of tickets and citations, with escalating consequences ranging from warnings to fines; expanding the scenarios in which stop-work orders can be issued; and changing the law to prevent employers from declaring bankruptcy to get out of paying financial penalties.
Opposition New Democrat labour critic Harry Bains said WorkSafeBC had failed to enforce rules that existed before the explosions.
While he said some of the proposed changes were promising, he argued the Liberal government’s plan should have gone even further. In particular, he said the province needs a special prosecutor who would specialize in workplace accidents.
“I think they have not gone far enough to put enough incentives or deterrents for negligent employers to protect workers,” said Bains.
The explosions at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake and the Lakeland Mill in Prince George have been linked to combustible dust.
While investigations suggested the explosions were preventable, Crown prosecutors said both mills had taken steps to mitigate the buildup of dust.
The Burns Lake explosion killed Carl Charlie, 42, and Robert Luggi Jr., 45. In Prince George, 43-year-old Alan Little and 46-year-old Glen Roche died.
Family members have called for a public inquiry to examine the explosions and the failed investigations.
Luggi’s widow, Maureen, said an inquiry is still the only way her family and the public will know exactly what went wrong.
“The province has failed me and my children; WorkSafeBC has failed us,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
“They could have prevented this if they were doing their inspections properly. If they did their investigation properly, the Criminal Justice Branch would have called for charges.”
The province has ruled out a public inquiry, pointing to the various reports and investigations that have already happened, as well as the plans for inquests by the BC Coroners Service.
The explosions prompted increased inspections to ensure mills were taking steps to control dust.
The latest phase of inspections found 84 per cent of sawmills tested were in compliance, up from 58 per cent during the previous round. Other manufacturing operations, such as pellet mills, had a far lower compliance rate of 40 per cent.