In both cases, unfortunately, there were casualties.
In both cases, the blasts were apparently due to sawdust.
In both cases official inquiries are still ongoing, but the media have been filled with hypotheses and discussions. Reportedly (Globe and Mail, April 27th) “the B.C. Government waited until the second catastrophe this week to issue province-wide guidelines, inspection regimes, deadlines and, possibly, new regulations”. Reportedly (same source) “when an explosion and fire tore through the Burns Lake mill, owners of other mills across the B.C. Interior -including Lakeland- looked at housekeeping and upgrades to address the potential risk (NB: improper technical language: should read potential hazard, the difference is important, see below!) of sawdust explosions at mills working with dry wood killed by pine beetles”; “safety experts noted the potential risk (NB: improper technical language: should read potential hazard, the difference is important, see below!) of sawdust after the January explosion at the Burns Lake sawmill”; “the industry has already been struggling with a massive shift since the mountain pine beetle began the widespread destruction of B.C. Forests”.
Also, the Globe and Mail (April 28th ) quotes Margaret MacDiarmid, the province Labour Minister, saying that “Burns Lake fire had appeared to be unique, pointing to the cold snap in January that had forced the mill to close its windows, increasing the hazard of a dust explosion”.
Out of respect for all parties involved, scientific rigour, we will not discuss the general foreseeability of such an event (Globe and Mail, April 26th reports for example: “in 2009 an inspection report found that Lakeland had not been monitoring worker exposure to wood dust…”), possible explosion triggers, possible preventative actions, post-catastrophe measures, possible responsibilities.
Instead we will focus our attention on some Risk Management points.
- Many industries, regulatory bodies, organizations keep confusing “risks” and “hazards”. As far as we know, no risks were formally evaluated for the mills, but hazard inspections, at best, were performed. To use a very simple language, “hazard is something that has potential to go wrong”, whereas “risk is the combination of a hazard with its potential consequences”. The confusion can lead to opposite “equally inappropriate” results:
a) If the environment is overly optimistic looking at hazards is conducive to reject any preventative action on the basis of “it’s just a hazard like another…we live with them every day”…things will remain as they are until an accident happens.
b) If the environment is overly pessimistic then excessive preventative actions will be taken, with potential loss of competitiveness.
- If risks had been evaluated (properly) instead of just looking at hazards, it would have resulted that a sawdust triggered explosion (due to any reason), and resulting fire, had potential to generate casualties, destroy the plant. Most likely anyone would have considered that event intolerable, and things would have been corrected long ago.
a) Well balanced regulations are risk based rather than hazard based.
b) Risk Based Decision Making (RBDM) is a discipline that warrants proper scientific approaches. It is not “improvised”, it requires skills. Methods should be “enforced” rather than resolve to knee-jerk reactions.
- When performing Risk Analyses for industries around the world Riskope is often confronted with “long chain” domino effects. From what we have read to date, the explosions’ root causes could both be “climate change” based:
-pine beetle size and severity of the outbreak and
-the cold snap
can indeed be considered somehow linked to the global climate change.
We do not believe any serious professional would ever be claiming that such a scenario (starting with climate change….down to saw dust explosions) could have been foreseen. However, if during a Risk Assessment site-visit significant volumes of sawdust would have been seen, a fire or explosion scenario would have been generated (not important to define the cause of the dust), potential consequences evaluated, etc. (see point 1,2 above).
It is time industries start looking at their risks in proper rational ways. Risk Assessment techniques will pave the way to safety, security, competitiveness and long term sustainability.
A sustainable industry is an industry that can keep working without a break. Avoiding catastrophic accidents is the first step toward sustainability.