When combustible dust ignited to cause a deadly explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill, a housekeeping issue quickly became a matter of life and death. Two workers were killed and 20 were injured that day in January 2012, catapulting the issue of dust to the top of the fire safety conversation.

A number of complex factors, both tangible and intangible, combined to cause the explosion. On the surface, friction from a drive-belt assembly caused a fire that ignited the deadly explosion; delving deeper, something far more complicated was going on. The Burns Lake Mill explosion, along with the incident at Lakeland Mills just weeks later, was due to a few long-running attitudes, several economic factors, and a stunning (in hindsight) lack of urgency when it comes to the issue of combustible dust.

Questioning What We Know

It often takes a tragedy to jolt us out of our complacency, and the Burns Lake mill explosion is a prime example. It’s not that Babine Forest Products (or several others in the industry, for that matter) were unaware of the dust. It was obviously perceptible and had even been reported by workers as a visual impairment on the job. But, the general attitude within the industry was that dust was mainly an issue of cleanup, not necessarily one of safety.

Kerry Douglas, safety manager for the West Fraser Timber Company, echoed this sentiment in a recent article: “I’ve been in the industry for over 40 years,” she said in The Globe and Mail. “That’s the way the industry has always looked at wood dust – as a housekeeping issue.”

A Story of Dollars and Sense

Superficially, the dry and brittle dust from beetle-killed wood contributed to the disaster at Burns Lake. But, the implications reach far beyond that.

The mountain pine beetle had long been wreaking havoc on the wood industry in British Columbia. There had been a great deal of urgency to process the remaining viable wood in the weeks preceding the explosion. Perhaps economic pressures led to compromised safety measures in the interest of keeping up. If that were the case, the incident is a stark reminder of a terrifying worst-case scenario. Had adequate investments been made in safety and prevention, much greater costs to life and property would have been avoided.

The Most Valuable Resource of All

Unfortunately, it all came down to timing. The problem was present; the urgency to solve it was not. The issue did receive attention when regulators were brought in to investigate the dust situation in the weeks prior. However, no one from regulators, to Babine management, to the employees themselves fully appreciated the dangerous implications of these conditions. Leadership was advised, in so many words, to solve the problem over time, calling attention to the negative health effects on the workers created by the airborne dust, but not cautioning about the explosion risk.

Tragically, time was a luxury the workers didn’t have. In the wake of the incident, we now know that anything longer than immediately may not be good enough. This particular point should not be taken lightly.

But there are lessons to be salvaged from the rubble. Industry experts and fire safety engineers throughout the world are searching for effective, economically viable solutions to the explosion risks presented by combustible dust. In the next post, we’ll examine additional lessons we can take from the Burns Lake mill incident, with the ultimate goal of preventing something like this from happening again.