Safety Front and Center

The Wood Pellet Association of Canada’s Safety Committee is striving to eliminate incidents in the wood pellet industry.
By Gordon Murray | July 24, 2019

In Canada, British Columbia’s sawmill industry experienced two horrific incidents in 2012.  Explosions occurred at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, and at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, killing four workers and injuring 42 others.  In both cases, the provincial safety regulator WorkSafeBC concluded that the explosions were caused by combustible wood dust.

In response to these two incidents, WorkSafeBC put an intense emphasis on enforcing effective combustible dust management in the sawmill industry in order to prevent similar tragedies. By mid-2014, WorkSafeBC concluded that the wood pellet sector had not responded adequately and was an especially poor performer in minimizing the risk of fires and explosions from combustible dust. The agency threatened to increase safety-related stop worker orders, fines and even shut down our entire industry if we could not show significant improvement.

Members of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada realized that WorkSafeBC was correct in its assessment.  WPAC’s mandate—originally limited to commercial aspects of the wood pellet trade—was expanded to include safety. WPAC formed a safety committee, made up initially of British Columbia-based members focused on combustible dust management, and soon expanded to members from across Canada focusing on all aspects of wood pellet safety. committee members, backed up in writing by their company CEOs, made two significant commitments: There will be no competition amongst WPAC members related to safety, with all safety resources being shared openly; and the committee would adopt a culture of openness with WorkSafeBC and other safety regulators.

On the issue of combustible dust management, the committee’s work consisted of: researching and documenting best practices; understanding regulatory requirements; preparing and publishing a combustible dust audit tool and auditor workbooks; holding training workshops; and individual committee members holding themselves accountable in reporting back to the group at large on progress in improving dust collection systems, housekeeping and audit completion.

As the committee’s focus expanded to safety issues beyond combustible dust, we began preparing and publishing an annual safety work plan and meeting with WorkSafeBC twice a year to review the committee’s progress against the work plan. The committee’s purpose for publishing the work plan is to hold ourselves publicly accountable for our commitment to safety.  The committee manages the work plan by sharing work amongst all committee members, and then reporting back via a monthly conference call.

The committee publicly released its 2019 Work Plan on Jan. 18. Current year focus areas include the following.

Process safety management. Process safety management is an analytical tool focused on preventing the frequency and severity of major catastrophic Events. The committee has been focusing on PSM for several years and holds annual training workshops. This year, we are planning a workshop on Bowtie Analysis, a risk method for analyzing and demonstrating causal relationships in high-risk scenarios. We will be identifying potential major unwanted incidents common to all operators in the wood pellet sector, and creating bowties for controlling each incident. The method takes its name from the shape of the diagram that’s created for each potential incident, which looks like a men’s bowtie.

Silo fires: risk assessment and response. In February, the committee held a workshop on silo fire management that was attended by nearly 100 wood pellet plant operators, maintenance personnel and municipal fire department personnel The top takeaways included: Do not open a silo to allow oxygen to reach the fire so as to prevent an explosion; use proper protective clothing, breathing apparatus, and a personal gas monitoring devices; do not use water for fire suppression; create an emergency response plan to have on hand in case of a silo fire and hold drills; use nitrogen for fire suppression.

WPAC’s next step is to develop a centralized liquid nitrogen storage facility for rapid fire response in Northern British Columbia.

Plant operator training and use of alarms. The committee is working with a facilitator and plant operators to develop a list of core competencies and a web-based training program to be used by plant operators across the wood pellet industry. We are also planning a fall workshop on human-computer interface design, display levels, visual clutter, situation awareness, alarms, etc.

Combustible dust management: raw product storage areas, general training and combustible dust hazard analysis. The committee has developed best practices for managing combustible dust in raw products storage areas, including a comprehensive list of potential ignition sources and mitigating measures.

Combustible gas and confined space entry. The committee has developed best practices for combustible gas awareness and risk mitigation.  We have developed a list of hazards and have documented mitigating measures for each hazard.  We are working with WorkSafeBC to embed our best practices into the B.C. provincial regulatory framework. 

In June, we held a combustible gas training workshop during the Wood Products Safety Summit in Prince George, B.C.

Training and supervision of workers. We have already held two safety events in 2019, including the February silo fire workshop and the Wood Products Safety Summit held in June, in Prince George. We are planning two more workshops in the fall on the subjects of process safety management and human-computer Interface, and will be holding a safety session at the WPAC annual conference in Ottawa in September. We are also working on an operator training program.

Incident reporting—review and trend analysis. We held a November 2018 workshop on incident reporting. The committee has developed a central database to record incidents and near misses. When we have accumulated sufficient data, we will use the findings to guide future safety focus areas for the committee.

Communications: We will develop a clear plan to support safety improvements across all members.
In keeping with past practice, the committee has released its 2019 Work Plan, and created a safety website as a central repository of all its work and minutes of meetings and conference calls.  We continue to encourage member participation. We have also reached out to other international pellet organizations to share knowledge. We successfully formed a cooperation with the European Pellet Council, and for the past two years, we have participated in joint safety sessions at various meetings of the European Pellet Council. Disappointingly, we haven’t had the same degree of success with our American colleagues.

Scott Bax, chief operating officer of Pinnacle Renewable Energy, is the chair of our committee. He often presents on the topic of safety. One of his favorite quotes is attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This statement is an acknowledgement that no matter how sophisticated an organization’s mission statements, visions and strategies may be, nothing will ever be accomplished if people don’t share common beliefs and have the willingness to embrace those beliefs together.  In our experience, it takes a serious, continuous sustained effort and support from the industry’s top management for us to achieve our safety goals. And despite our best efforts, we have continued to experience a small number of safety incidents in Canada. We will continue our focus on improving, striving to reach a state where our industry no longer experiences any safety incidents and we send all our people home safely every day.

Author: Gordon Murray
Executive Director, Wood Pellet Association of Canada