Les Leyne: WorkSafe B.C. needs independent look

Les Leyne mugshot genericGordon Macatee has a lot of changes to make in a short period of time as the temporary administrator at WorkSafe B.C.

For the last three years, he’s been the B.C. ferry commissioner, running an office that serves as an independent watchdog of the ferries. He made a notable contribution in that role by writing a searching critique of the system two years ago.

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It questioned every assumption on which the operation of the ferries is based. It suggested any number of drastic solutions to the pervasive financial problem B.C. Ferry Services faces. A lot of the changes now being made flow from that report.

His new assignment is a bit different. As ferry commissioner, a job he is expected to return to after the WSBC job is done, he is more or less autonomous and wrote his own ticket. While running WSBC through this period of lost confidence in the organization, he is expected to follow a plan that was laid out this year when the crisis erupted.

It started in January. WSBC had submitted a huge report on the Burns Lake mill explosion to Crown counsel. The Criminal Justice Branch released a formal statement that dismissed the investigation as being inadequate. No charges could be laid, partly because elementary rules of evidence, such as advising witnesses of their rights, weren’t followed.

It started a finger-pointing public spat between the two agencies, and Premier Christy Clark’s deputy minister was assigned to sort the mess out. John Dyble concluded that WSBC needs to get its act together. He recommended a number of changes to do with communicating and investigation techniques.

Even though everyone knew another shoe was going to drop, it was nothing short of stunning this week when exactly the same thing happened all over again.

Five days after WSBC concluded its lengthy on-site investigation at Burns Lake, the Lakeland mill in Prince George exploded, in April 2012. WorkSafe investigated that sawdust-fueled explosion in pretty much the same way. That contributed to the Criminal Justice Branch once again concluding this week that no charges could be laid.

That’s four people dead, 42 injured and two major investigations stalled out at the charges stage. (The Burns Lake mill was levied a $97,000 administrative penalty and had to pay more than $900,000 in costs.)

Macatee’s job is to ensure WSBC has some grasp of the law when it comes to investigating accidents, so that its reports to Crown counsel stop being rejected.

At the same time, he is tasked with slamming a 90-day action plan on sawmill safety into place. Sawdust-action plans have been the order of the day since the explosions, but mills still have a miserable record. The Vancouver Sun reported a 42 per cent compliance rate on the last inspection tour.

A meeting last month brought forth the 90-day plan that Macatee is charged with implementing. It was described then as an “aggressive co-ordinated plan” that will raise standards in sawmills and see a sawdust protocol offered to every mill in B.C.

Macatee is also instructed to check out other regimes to determine how enforcement and regulation of workplace safety may be separated. That could lead to a new framework at the outfit, incorporating the best other regimes have to offer. The government is also expecting to hear from him on a workforce review and enhanced training. He’s also going to hire a new CEO, to replace one who retired.

When he’s reported out by July 1, it will be a reasonably complete governmental response to some extraordinary circumstances.

But it’s all been done in-house. It’s the government examining itself, determining it has a problem and deciding what to do about it. An independent look at the situation, by way of the public inquiry the Opposition has been demanding for months, might have reached different conclusions.

That’s not going to happen. The only independent look at the two explosions will come from a coroner’s inquest, or inquests.

And Macatee’s overhaul will likely be firmly established by the time the juries decide what they think should be done.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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