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Final Thought: November-December 2014


December 5, 2014
By Cam McAlpine

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You know that kid from elementary school? The one who made a couple of mistakes, or just bad choices, and got in trouble as a result. From then on they were labelled the “bad kid.” Anything bad that happened got blamed on that kid.

You know that kid from elementary school? The one who made a couple of mistakes, or just bad choices, and got in trouble as a result. From then on they were labelled the “bad kid.” Anything bad that happened got blamed on that kid.

The wood products manufacturing sector in British Columbia is currently that kid.

As a result of the two fatal sawmill explosions in B.C. in 2012 and the ongoing challenges of meeting standards under the new WorkSafeBC inspection regime, the industry is facing a twofold problem: one real, and one perceived.

First, the real problem. In the wake of the 2012 explosions, WorkSafeBC ramped up its inspection program for all wood products manufacturers. It has released the findings from the first four phases of inspections (the fifth is due out shortly).

In Phase III, sawmills had just a 58% compliance rate. Significant improvement was seen in Phase IV, when sawmills had an 84% compliance rate. Wood pellet and OSB plants were added during Phase IV. The 15 plants inspected were in compliance just 40% of the time.

The good news is that we expect to see significant improvements in Phase V inspections. This is partly due to a shift in the way WorkSafeBC conducts its inspections. It is also due to the fact that there has been a genuine cultural shift in the industry toward making combustible dust, and general safety, the number one priority, from head office to the mill floor.

But let’s get back to that bad kid.

The 2012 explosions were tragic, and rightly focused public attention on the issue. Industry’s inability to respond in a timely fashion, combined with a political and media climate that lends itself to seeking out heroes and villains, gave the industry as a whole a bad reputation.

We were now the bad kid. And everyone was just waiting for the next incident to prove this prejudice.

Then October 9 happened.

That’s when an explosion occurred at the Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant in Burns Lake, B.C., the very town where this all started.

The media response was swift and, frankly, vicious. It was also mostly wrong. The incident does not appear to have anything to do with combustible dust (results of the WorkSafeBC investigation are still to be released as of this writing). And thankfully, the consequences were not as severe as 2012.

But that didn’t stop it from making national news, and creating another black eye for an entire industry.

Ironically, on the very same day as the Oct. 9 event, there were two workplace fatalities in B.C., neither of which earned an inch of ink in the media. That’s right, two people died, and no one knows about it.

But they sure know about the incident in Burns Lake. And if they weren’t paying close attention, they came away with the impression that the wood products manufacturing industry is: (a) unsafe, (b) populated by company executives who care more about money than their employees, (c) in need of an even more severe regulatory and legal spanking, or (d) all of the above.

The fact is the industry is none of the above. But it does find itself in a position where perception now trumps reality and the industry’s reputation and social license are in jeopardy.

What can we do about it? Well, industry is already doing the first and most important thing: it is taking action. This action, I believe, will see positive results in short order.

But the other thing the industry must do is to start rebuilding its reputation. Our social license depends on it. And we no longer have the benefit of the doubt.

This is a much longer-term proposition. It will require every company to make the changes it must to ensure the safety of its employees day in and day out. And it will take a combined effort across industry sectors to demonstrate and communicate that the actions we are taking are setting the new standard for safety in an industrial setting.


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Cam McAlpine is the president of PRMedia Strategic Communications, serving clients in the forestry and bioenergy industries. He can be reached at cmcalpine@prmedia.ca.


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