For Safety's Sake

A collaboration between the British Columbia Forest Safety Council and the Wood Pellet Association of Canada could help reduce safety issues and incidents in the pellet sector.
By Lisa Gibson | October 31, 2011

In 2005, the British Columbia forestry industry had a fatality count of 43, well over its annual average of 20. The unacceptably high figure prompted a public outcry and the formation of a safety task force to evaluate and implement preventative measures. The industry has now been working under an independently audited safety certification program and has brought down its yearly fatality average to 10. So far this year, the number is four.

The British Columbia Forest Safety Council, a not-for-profit group formed after 2005’s disturbing number of deaths in the forestry industry, is that auditing agency. The organization is funded through a levy collected from the industry and has played a pivotal role in the safety improvements of the sector. This year’s goal was zero forestry-related deaths, according to Stephen Chaplin, director of training and program development for the BC Forest Safety Council, and while that won’t be met, the number is substantially lower than 2005’s because of the systems the safety council has put in place. “Things have gotten much better,” he says.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a direct result of the BC Forest Safety Council,” he adds. “I would say it’s a shared responsibility with government, health and safety associations, and industry all working together putting safety in the forefront.”

The 2005 safety task force’s action plan was based on four key pillars: cultural change: the development of sector-wide health and safety accord; assured capacity: the development of a sector-wide health and safety assurance; shared responsibility: promotion and implementation of cascading responsibilities; and rigorous implementation: creation of an implementation team.
The BC Forest Safety Council has taken on the implementation team role and was integral in developing the audit and certification program, which begins with a basic audit questionnaire that includes eight elements. The first is management leadership, including many aspects such as company health and safety policies, and health and safety responsibilities such as the communication to workers of their specific safety responsibilities and evaluation by the manager of the company’s safety program. Next is hazard identification and risk control, which include inspections and risk management.

Third, the audit questionnaire addresses standards, procedures and work instructions. Those questions draw information about a company’s safety rules, regulatory compliance and emergency response. Training, education and certification come next, evaluating, as the name suggests, training, education, orientations and certification. Next on the questionnaire is the section dedicated to health and safety communication systems including safety meetings and documentation. Incident reporting and investigation systems follow, addressing recommendations and follow-up actions.

Nonprime contractor management includes questions about selection criteria, as does the next section of the questionnaire about prime contractor management. The final questions concern injury management and return to work programs and include aspects such as return to work policy, management and leadership, and communications. Following the main audit areas are technical audit modules, where companies answer questions only relevant to their industries. 

With accidents such as explosions and fires on the rise in Canada’s pellet mills, could this all-encompassing safety action plan be broadened to include other forestry-related industries, such as the wood pellet sector?

Chaplin is confident it can.

Addressing the Pellet Industry

While the need for change in the forestry industry came about because of the high number of fatalities, the impetus in the pellet industry is high insurance rates resulting from an increase in the number of accidents, sometimes causing deaths. Most accidents are related to dust explosions and fires, self-heating and spontaneous combustion, and hazardous emissions.

“They have wood dust explosions,” Chaplin says. “They're catastrophic. We don’t see a lot of fatalities, although there are some, but mostly we see explosions.”

Because of a large number of incidents and insurance claims from Canadian pellet mills, two insurers have already left the pellet sector. “If that keeps going and other insurers follow their lead, we’ll be in trouble, won’t we?” says Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. The few insurers who remain, have implemented astronomical rates, restrictive terms and provide less capacity.

Unless a best practices plan incorporating risk management and risk control is put in place, insurance may not be available to some Canadian pellet manufacturers, Murray worries. One letter to the Canadian pellet industry from the Lumbermen’s Underwriting Alliance, which has since pulled out of the pellet industry altogether, reads, “We have incurred an inordinate number of claims … causing us to pay out far more in settlements than we ever charged in premiums.”

Such concerns prompted Murray to approach the BC Forest Safety Council, Chaplin recalls, wondering if its success in reducing accidents could be transferred and used just as efficiently in the pellet industry. “The answer is yes,” Chaplin says.

“They’ve been through this before in the harvesting sector,” Murray explains. “We have to decide as an industry that this is unacceptable and we have to change our culture here.” Development of a similar system for the pellet industry does include a whole new set of concerns and aspects, Chaplin cautions, including contractors, how the product is received and the different processes.

So with the help of Canadian insurance broker Aon, the safety council and pellet association developed a pellet mill-specific audit questionnaire to accompany the basic audit already developed for the forestry industry. “We’ve developed these questionnaires through every part of the process from grinding through drying, pelletizing and cooling,” Murray says. The questionnaires convey the importance of measures such as spark detection and isolation of fire hazards. “It’s going to become an audit system and if [mills] pass, they’ll be certified as safe,” he adds. Just as it is in the forestry industry, the BC Forest Safety Council will be the safety auditing and certification body for the pellet mill industry.

The pellet addendum to the program also includes an important insurability audit to help in the qualification for lower insurance costs. “So when folks build a new plant, they can take those measures into account,” Chaplin says. “Or if they already have an existing plant, if they follow those things … the hope is, if they’ve done the audit and they’ve done the insurability audit, that they’ll be able to have lower rates.”

The insurance aspect, catering to wary insurers and developed with the help of Aon, asks specific questions, such as whether the fiber pile sits at least 30 meters away from any major building on-site, whether multiple fiber piles are at least 10 meters apart, and whether the maximum size of fiber piles is less than 150 meters by 100 meters by 20 meters. The questionnaire also includes inquiries about mobile equipment and their fire suppression systems and preventative maintenance systems for daily inspection and cleaning of mobile equipment used for transporting fiber. Process-related questions regarding primary building construction are accounted for also, including dust isolation, fire suppression systems, fiber in-feed, fiber sizing, fiber drying, pelletizing, cooling, finished product storage, and dust collection and ventilation.

Important technical audit subjects for pellet mills would also include off-gassing, hot works, lockout, working at heights, respiratory protection and combustible dusts, Murray says.

The pellet mill safety system integrates both the safety and business models, Chaplin explains. “By doing that, you have high productivity, good morale, good culture, good safety and good business,” he says.


 Murray planned to  present the finished system proposal, complete with estimated costs, to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada board of directors on Oct. 26. The board will make the final decision as to whether participation in the audit and certification system will be required for Canada’s pellet industry. “So far, my board has been supportive of all this, but they’ve stopped short of making the absolute requirement for certification,” Murray says, adding that the October meeting could end with a vote on implementation of the system, or the board could decide to study it further and vote at a later date. “I just can’t say for sure,” he says.

The safety program implemented in British Columbia’s forestry sector has indeed led to a decrease in insurance claims registered (see table above), while providing the even more necessary benefit of reducing deaths. With the pellet addendum, it could be used all over the world in both the forestry and pellet sectors, Chaplin says. “It’s about sharing of learning and partnerships and we’re happy to share anything. Potentially, I could see that it could apply anywhere.”

Together, the BC Forest Safety Council, Aon and the Wood Pellet Association of Canada have identified their insurance and safety issues through pellet plant visits, and have gained grassroots support for their effort to create a meaningful and audited safety certification program.

“It just makes you feel good in your belly when you can go out and help make a difference,” Chaplin says.
Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
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