Canadian Biomass Magazine

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Prevent Fires, Explosions

The wood pellet business is hazardous.  Dock workers have unknowingly entered loaded ship holds and perished from carbon monoxide emitted by wood pellets.


October 15, 2010
By Gordon Murray

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The wood pellet business is hazardous.  Dock workers have unknowingly entered loaded ship holds and perished from carbon monoxide emitted by wood pellets.  Many times, rainwater has leaked into a storage silo, causing the pellets to self-heat and eventually burst into catastrophic fire.  Workers trying to extinguish the fire then cut holes in the side of the silo, only to cause explosions, injuries, and deaths. 

The pellet manufacturing process creates highly explosive wood dust.  Consequently, there have been numerous incidents of fires and explosions set off by a spark from the friction between moving parts, a flame from a welding torch, or the heat from a drum dryer.  Such incidents happen too frequently, not only in Canada, but in pellet plants around the world.  Every incident is investigated and explained, yet they continue to occur.

Canadian insurance companies have recently told the pellet industry that its performance must improve or else pellet plants will no longer be insurable.  Without insurance, pellet producers will lose the ability to be financed or operate.  More importantly, injuries and loss of life are unacceptable.  Occupational health and safety is a critical issue demanding immediate attention.  Although there are pellet producers who have excellent safety records, the frequency of incidents by those who do not taints the reputations of everyone.  Pellet producers must create an industry-wide culture in which the health and safety of workers is an overriding priority.

The Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) is taking action.  Together with the British Columbia Forest Safety Council (BCFSC), it is developing an industry-wide safety program consisting of: (1) a handbook of best practices for pellet industry health and safety; (2) a safety audit protocol based on the best practices handbook; and (3) a safety certification brand (SAFE Certified).

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The best practices handbook is being developed in consultation with WPAC members and will consist of safety guidelines for construction, operation, and maintenance of pellet plants.  It will include references to occupational health and safety legislation, regulations, and the requirements of safety authorities such as the National Fire Protection Association, the EU ATEX Directives, and others.

Each WPAC member company will have the opportunity to become SAFE Certified by undergoing an initial comprehensive safety audit by a qualified third-party auditor to ensure compliance with the best practices handbook and then periodic subsequent maintenance audits to ensure ongoing compliance.

Although most provinces have their own forest industry health and safety association, WPAC intends to try to reach an agreement with each province to have BCFSC act as the health and safety association for all Canadian pellet plants to maintain a consistent safety standard for the entire wood pellet industry in Canada.  Most provincial workers’ compensation boards have certificate of recognition programs whereby certified members of an approved health and safety association – such as BCFSC – receive significant rebates (i.e., 10%) of their workers’ compensation fees.

The certification process is designed to provide several advantages to participants:

  • Employees will have a safer working environment.
  • Workers’ compensation boards will gain confidence that the companies are operating safely.  This means rebates on premiums and reduced rates.
  • Insurance companies will gain confidence that future incidents will be reduced.  Hence, they will continue to provide coverage and refrain from unusual rate increases.
  • European utility customers, who must increasingly demonstrate that they are purchasing from sources that are both green and ethical in the treatment of workers, will gain confidence in the companies.
  • Good (certified) performers’ reputations will no longer be tainted by the poor safety performance of poor (non-certified) performers.

Canadian pellet producers are currently struggling as a result of an oversupplied European market, declining prices, and unfavourable foreign exchange rates.  It is tempting in such times to cut back and wait before starting any new initiatives.  However, this is one initiative that can’t wait and must be pursued with maximum effort.  Fatalities and accidents are preventable, and we are all responsible.


Gordon Murray is executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. He can be contacted at 250-837-8821 or gord@gordonmurray.ca.


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