Four Years Later – Mill Fire Victims Still Wait for Justice

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Mill Fire

Four Years Later – Mill Fire Victims Still Wait for Justice

By John Horgan

Jan. 20, 2016

Four years ago Wednesday, B.C. suffered from one of its worst workplace catastrophes when the Babine Mill in Burns Lake exploded. And four years after the fire that killed Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie, family and friends and the other victims of the explosion are still looking for justice and still waiting for Premier Christy Clark to live up to the promises she made.

The community remembers. They remember Clark flying in the day after the explosion and saying, “we are going to be there. We are going to step up.”

In the four years since, family members, joined by victims and families of a sadly similar tragedy at the Lakeland mill in Prince George, have had to fight their government. The government refused their request for a public inquiry. It had to be shamed embarrassed into even holding an inquest in northern B.C., and to respond to WorkSafeBC’s attempts to cut injured workers off of benefits and rehabilitation services. Most recently, they’ve launched a lawsuit against the Liberal government and WorkSafeBC, so deep is their mistrust of the Clark government.

Their reasons for mistrusting this government and the regulating agency whose primary mission is protecting worker safety are obvious. As far back as 2005, agencies in the U.S. were flagging combustible dust as a danger. Yet even after fires began occurring at B.C. mills, including at Babine and Lakeland in the months prior to the 2012 explosions, WorkSafeBC failed to act.

After the Babine tragedy, as initial reports pointed strongly to wood dust as, at very least, a contributing factor to the explosion, the regulator issued no cleanup orders to other mills and even withheld that information from the public. Three months after Babine, the Lakeland fire in Prince George killed Glenn Roche and Alan Little. In all, four workers died and more than 40 others suffered life-changing injuries.We still don’t have a clear picture of the litany of systemic failures that led to these workplace deaths. We know they were preventable tragedies. We know that WorkSafeBC botched the investigation, meaning no charges — regulatory or criminal — were laid in wake of these deaths. But the stubborn refusal by Clark to call a public inquiry into both fires kept the victims and their families from learning the truth of the events.

Can Clark honestly say that she and her government “stepped up” for these victims? The workers, their families and the community have repeatedly said they don’t think so. They are just the latest who have seen Clark say what she thinks they want to hear, only to do whatever suits her own political purposes.

B.C. workers deserve better. They deserve to be able to go to work and know that they will be able to get home safely at the end of the day. And they deserve to have a government that will take aggressive actions to enhance worker safety.

There are specific actions the government can take immediately. New Democrats have been constant in calling for a designated Crown prosecutor for WorkSafeBC cases. In the 11 years since the implementation of the Westray Law — which was intended to punish companies for negligence leading to workplace deaths — there had been no criminal charges laid in B.C. until this year. A designated prosecutor, with proper resources, would not only punish the worst of the offenders, it would send a signal that workplaces must be safe for all workers at all times. We once had this prosecutor position in place but the Liberal government eliminated it in 2002.

We also believe that the WorkSafeBC board should have more members who reflect workers’ interests and experiences so worker safety is the first priority of the organization. WorkSafeBC should have in place the resources for effective compliance and enforcement of current workplace safety rules.

Enforcement cannot be a reaction to a workplace tragedy; it needs to be the proactive tool that prevents tragedies in the first place. It also needs to stop ignoring recommendations to improve the enforcement of a workers’ right to refuse unsafe work.

WorkSafeBC has lost sight of its core mission. It has become an insurance company more concerned about the liability of businesses when it should be, primarily, a safety regulator. New Democrats believe that if Clark is going to live up to her promise of being there for injured workers and their families in Prince George and Burns Lake, she will take immediate steps to fix the problems at WorkSafeBC.

John Horgan is leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party and MLA for the riding of Juan de Fuca.

This op-ed article appeared in the Province newspaper on Janaury 20th, 2016:

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