Since the two British Columbia sawmill explosions in early 2012, attention to the problem of combustible dust has skyrocketed. It’s tragically too late for the four workers killed and more than 40 injured in these blasts, but perhaps the lessons we take from these incidents can prevent future loss of life and property.

What can regulators do?

In British Columbia today, there is a concentrated effort underway to systematically attack the problem of combustible dust. WorkSafeBC, the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia, conducted an investigation of the incident and issued regulation and safety recommendations for sawmills moving forward. This includes, among others, the following initiatives:

  • WorkSafeBC will issue an order to all BC sawmills to take a comprehensive assessment of the conditions, risks and hazards posed by combustible dust in their facilities. These companies are then ordered to develop and sustain preventative measures including a combustible dust control program.
  • WorkSafeBC will follow up with more than 100 mills, ensuring their compliance to these safety measures.

As in everything, knowledge is also a powerful tool. WorkSafeBC and other organizations are disseminating thorough reports on combustible dust, its risks, and the necessary safety measures to prevent an incident from occurring. Many of these resources are available here.

What can the industry do?

We cannot underestimate the importance of self-regulation. These explosions were above all tragic, but they were also tremendously costly. Those in the wood industry can prevent substantial losses by investing a relatively small amount in constant, vigilant safety measures. It’s a lot less traumatic to hire an expert and implement appropriate dust safety measures proactively than to rebuild a mill and respond to the voices of a grieving community.

One major step is education. Industry leaders must take it upon themselves to become educated about combustible dust and fully appreciate its risk factor. And the resources are out there, whether through government regulators or independent research. Get informed. It could save time, resources and, most importantly, the lives of workers.

What can workers do?

Make no assumptions. We all would prefer to trust our employers to watch out for our best interest. However, one of the many heartbreaking lessons taken from the Burns Mill explosion is that sometimes workers must be their own best advocates.

To repeat an ongoing theme, the best preparation is knowledge. But beyond that, workers must find a strong voice in maintaining a safe and productive work environment. Whether it’s reporting faulty equipment or calling attention to an unsafe accumulation of dust, it is important to speak up.

Many state and local governments have online resources for both workers and employers. Just a small time investment can yield priceless tips for recognizing and addressing the risks of airborne and combustible dust. See below for a few useful links: