BURNS LAKE, B.C. – British Columbia’s workers’ compensation authority has fined a Burns Lake company $56,000 in the wake of a 2014 explosion at a wood pellet plant that injured three workers.
WorkSafeBC imposed the penalty against Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. after an investigation report concluded the company failed to maintain safe working conditions and to exercise due diligence.
Pinnacle fell short on providing adequate safety information, training and supervision, the report found.
“These failures contributed to an explosion which carried a high risk of causing serious injury or death,” read the document.
Leroy Reitsma, president of Pinnacle Renewable Energy, said the Burns Lake plant has made great strides in the past year in advancing a culture of “owning safety.”
“All of our employees, contractors and management are proud of the work that has been done, and continues to be done, to create and continuously improve the safety of our work environment,” said Reitsma.
“The 2014 event brought to light a previously unknown risk associated with the use of rotary dryers that we have used as a catalyst to create positive change across our organization.”
“While we are respectful of WorkSafeBC’s decision, we are proud of the progress we have made on safety and are appreciative of the efforts that all employees and contractors have made to achieve better results,” added Reitsma.
According to Work Safe BC, there were grounds for imposing an administrative penalty because the employer “has failed to take sufficient precautions for the prevention of work related injuries or illnesses.”
The investigation concluded that workers failed to follow procedures before opening up a dryer door during a routine burner cleaning, including shutting off a combustion fan before the equipment had cooled sufficiently.
It also found that the facility’s production superintendent had directed a worker to abandon the control room to help with the clean out, leaving no one to monitor as temperatures rose to dangerously high levels.
The temperature in the dryer chamber climbed to 358 degrees Celsius, far higher than the 80 C stipulated in the manufacturer’s instructions before the door can be safely opened.
The report concluded the explosion was caused by a build up of gases in the burner, sparked by a combination of residual heat and a sudden inflow of oxygen.
“An accumulation of flammable gases in a contained dryer system was exposed to high temperatures and oxygen, leading to an explosion,” says the report. “A fire or hot spot was present in the system, and with the burner door open, an in-rush of oxygen occurred, resulting in an explosion that injured three workers.”
“There is no evidence that the atmosphere was monitored for oxygen, flammable gases, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide … before workers entered into the burner combustion chamber,” read the report.
The report also says one of the underlying factors of the explosion included not following procedures to permit adequate cooling time.
“Pinnacle’s written procedure for burner cleanout was not followed. The combustion air fan was turned off before the burner outlet cooled to 80 C. Also, the burner manufacturer’s instructions were not followed; the instructions require the combustion air fan to remain on for three hours before the burner door is opened,” says the report. “By not incorporating the manufacturer’s instructions, Pinnacle’s procedures were not adequate to safely cool the dryer system. These two failures resulted in cleanup work being started in the combustion chamber while high temperatures were still present.”
The three workers standing outside the dryer door were knocked off their feet and suffered burns as a result of the blast.
“The production superintendent told the day shift operator to assist with the cleanup, and the control room was left unattended,” says the report.
“High temperatures developed within the system, and the day shift operator was not in a position to monitor or control them.”
“Lack of co-ordination between the production superintendent, the lead hand, and the welder were factors in this incident as well as the failure to effectively coordinate the control room operator’s duties,” says the report.
The report also found in the aftermath of the explosion that the employer had submitted a document outlining safe work procedures that was labelled as a draft and dated 11 days after the incident.
The WorkSafeBC report described the procedures as “confusing and incomplete” because they were “scattered in at least eight different documents, which did not cross-reference one another.”
Burns Lake was the scene of another mill explosion in 2012, which saw two workers killed and 19 others injured at a plant owned by Babine Forest Products.
A coroner’s inquest found the deaths were accidental and no charges were laid, but the United Steelworkers union is calling for a public inquiry into both that explosion and another fatal blast that happened at Lakeland Mills in Prince George a few months later.
The Lakeland explosion killed two people and injured dozens more.