After botched evidence and interview gathering during an investigation into a deadly mill explosion left prosecutors unable to file criminal charges, a government report now recommends overhauling how WorkSafeBC conducts investigations.
"The actions which led to the tragic events at the Babine and Lakeland sawmills, with the resulting failure of prosecution, should never happen again," concluded the report, authored by former B.C. government bureaucrat Gord Macatee.
The report was requested by B.C. Labour Minister Shirley Bond following the explosions in 2012 at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C. and Lakeland sawmill in Prince George.
The blasts and fires killed four and injured dozens more.
"Action will be taken immediately on key recommendations around worker safety. There are other recommendations that will take some time to fully implement because they require consultations, legislation, or policy changes at WorkSafeBC," Bond said.
Both mill explosion cases were referred to the Criminal Justice Branch (CJB) for charge assessment.
In both instances, the CJB stated evidence was gathered by WorkSafeBC investigators without warrants and interviewees were not informed about the Charter of Rights.
This meant that the cases could not be successfully prosecuted.
Despite this, WorkSafeBC’s investigations found that both explosions were due to poor wood dust management and each was preventable.
Macatee’s report shows that the WorkSafeBC model works and there isn’t a desire to see the "baby thrown out with the bathwater."
He did not support any changes to the fundamental structure of WorkSafeBC.
However, he listed 43 recommendations, including significant changes in managing investigations and sharpening tools used to enforce regulations.
Shortly after the release of the report, WorkSafeBC issued a statement from WorkSafeBC board chair George Morfitt saying it accepts the report and will immediately start implementing the recommendations.
Many in the industry praised the report and also supported its implementation.
"Macatee discovered what all employers knew already: WorkSafeBC, the way it is currently structured, is efficient and effective," said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C.
He said Macatee appreciated that the system is about prevention and not prosecution.
"If he goes down that road it would make people clam up rather than work with WorkSafe to find the cause," Hochstein said.
"It was a triumph of prevention over prosecution."
One of the main recommendations was to separate cause and fault investigations to preserve usable evidence.
According to the report, this means splitting the Fatal and Serious Injuries department into two independent units with an "ethical wall" high enough to maintain the integrity of each investigation.
According to the report WorkSafeBC should also proceed towards the adoption of a major case management protocol and system in its investigations.
However, it was noted that it was already in the process of doing so prior to the report.
The report recommends two more directors to WorkSafeBC’s board to add regulatory and occupational health and safety expertise.
The recommendations also aim to give the organization more teeth by sharpening compliance tools. This includes shortening timelines for penalties, making administrative penalties proportional the offense and the employer size, expanding when stop work orders can be issued and introducing employer citations with escalating fine provisions.
The recommendations asked WorkSafeBC to consider imposing fines on employees who don’t wear protective equipment.
Hochstein said that the recommendation is an idea that is long overdue.
"Safety is a shared responsibility," he said.
Jeff Lyth, owner of QSP Leadership Inc., a safety management consulting firm said Macatee did an excellent job of getting himself up to speed on the complex world of health and safety.
"He seems to have nailed the house keeping improvement that was probably needed," he said.
Tammy Oliver, director of operations for the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance, said the recommendations will have a positive impact on the industry.
"The goal of building a world class investigation and inspection regime by implementing all of these recommendations is a great mission and we highly commend the ministry and WorkSafeBC," she said.
"The BCCSA will be right beside them to accomplish these goals."