Workers, families take WorkSafeBC to court over 2012 mill explosions

By The Canadian Press
January 12, 2016 - 10:51am Updated: January 12, 2016 - 4:57pm

VANCOUVER — Ten people connected to a pair of deadly sawmill explosions in British Columbia are asking a judge to certify a class-action lawsuit seeking damages for physical and mental injuries.

The separate blasts in 2012 killed four workers and injured 42 people at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and Lakeland Mills in Prince George.

A notice of civil claim named the Workers Compensation Board of B.C. and the provincial government.

In a statement Tuesday, Scott McCloy with WorkSafeBC said the agency had no immediate comment on the allegations.

Patrick Michell was inside the Babine mill when it blew up in January 2012. He and nine others are seeking general, special and punitive damages, as well as declarations that WorkSafe’s inspections and investigations were negligent.

“The class members trusted WorkSafe to take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the mills and to competently investigate the explosions,” the statement of claim said.

“By failing in both respects, WorkSafe betrayed the class members’ trust, denied them justice for their suffering and for the suffering and deaths of their loved ones, undermined their faith in government and robbed them of the sense of security and safety that a trustworthy and competent system of prevention and deterrence provides.”

Michell represents one of six classes of plaintiffs, including workers who were in the two mills when fire tore through them. Workers who were off-shift, and family members of on- and off-shift workers at both locations are also represented.

They allege WorkSafeBC ignored its legal duty to represent workers’ interests.

The allegations have yet to be tested in court.

Many workers were out of work for months following the explosions, which the claim said were caused by combustible wood dust in levels that WorkSafe had identified as unsafe months or years earlier.

“At no time prior to the Babine explosion did WorkSafe issue Babine Forest Products any orders or administrative penalties in respect of combustible wood dust.”

It also referenced at least 24 separate inspections of the Prince George mill in the years leading up to the April 2012 explosion, with each inspection uncovering unacceptable levels of wood dust, yet producing no WorkSafe orders to clean up.

“WorkSafe’s conduct was reckless and departed to a very marked degree from the standard of conduct expected of a responsible and competent inspector,” the claim said.

Michell suffered permanent paralysis and burns to 37 per cent of his body in the Babine blast, while Lakeland worker Bruce Germyn endured a brain injury and burns to 35 per cent of his body.

Workers who were not on the job on the night of the tragedies report mental distress and anxiety, while family members such as Sidney, B.C., resident John Little, whose son died in the Lakeland explosion, still deal with anxiety, distress and loss of enjoyment of life, the claim said.

Under the Workers Compensation Act, the claim said employees cannot sue an employer and must rely on WorkSafe to protect their interests.

WorkSafeBC and the province have three weeks to respond to the allegations.

The Canadian Press

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