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British Columbia Proposed bill to protect employees applies 12 WorkSafeBC recommendations

A closed gate at the Babine Forest Products Sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., on Dec. 5, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Labour Minister has tabled a new bill that would beef up penalties for companies whose negligence seriously injures or kills their workers and even bar "egregious" violators from operating in a certain sector.

Shirley Bond announced the bill, known as the Workers Compensation Amendment Act, on Wednesday afternoon. It proposes on-the-spot penalties for negligent employers and allows WorkSafeBC to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to shut down a company that hasn't paid its fines or completed safety orders – "someone who does not comply on a continuous basis." The bill would implement 12 of the legislative recommendations made by an internal WorkSafeBC report into two 2012 sawmill explosions that killed four workers and sparked a public outcry when no charges were laid.

In both cases, Crown prosecutors found WorkSafeBC did not adequately warn the sawmill owners about the risk of combustible wood dust, and then did not properly manage the investigations after the fact.

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"It will provide WorkSafe with more options in terms of their ability to deal with consequences for employers who do not take worker safety as significantly as they should," Ms. Bond said in a teleconference before tabling the bill.

"While no piece of legislation can ever erase or mitigate what families in northern British Columbia experienced, particularly those who lost loved ones, we do believe that this is an important step moving forward with legislative change."

Gord Macatee, the WorkSafeBC adviser who reported on the shortcomings of the province's worker safety regime, said at the conference that the bill "does exactly what I've recommended."

Since he tabled his report in July, 2012, Mr. Macatee said staff have undergone training into warrants, search and seizure and now, a second investigative team takes over when an employer is potentially liable for a workplace incident.

In the past, prevention officers weren't scheduled to inspect workplaces at night or on the weekends, times when often the most vulnerable workers are present, he said. Now, 16 prevention officers rotate through weekend and night shifts, Mr. Macatee said.

As well, 96 mills that had compliance issues now take part in a voluntary inspection program aimed at cracking down on the combustible sawdust that resulted in huge blasts at the Babine and Lakeland sawmills in 2012.

Irene Lanzinger, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, welcomed the bill as a "step in the right direction," noting that negligent employers in many industries need to be held to a higher standard after a number of "very significant cases" in the province.

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But Ms. Lanzinger said her federation was disappointed that the amendments didn't include the establishment of a dedicated Crown prosecutor for cases where an employer's negligence results in serious injury or death of a worker.

"It is that stage of prosecution that never seems to happen," Ms. Lanzinger said. "If you drive your car and you kill someone – even though you didn't intend to but you were negligent – you will be prosecuted.

"But if you're an employer who should know better, it seems like you never get prosecuted for these things."

Rhonda Roche, whose husband, Glenn, died in the Lakeland Mills blast, said the proposed changes are just "a small step" toward many more changes needed for WorkSafeBC.

"A combined effort between all governing bodies will be required to see any prosecutions for negligent companies," Ms. Roche said. "With less than a month until the coroner's inquest, I'm not surprised to see some efforts put forth that would surely be part of the recommendations upon completion of the inquest."

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