One of the men killed in the Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion would “literally pound on the table in the lunchroom” when expressing his concerns about the level of wood dust in the facility, a coroners inquest into the incident heard Tuesday.
Glenn Roche, who died from injuries suffered in the April 23, 2012 explosion, was worried about the mill’s condition even before a similar explosion had occurred at Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake three months before the one at Lakeland took his life, said long-time Lakeland employee Lorne Hartford.
“Talking about how he’s not getting any response from the company, how he’s talked to this guy and that guy and how ‘we got to pick up now because they’re not doing their job’ and ‘we’ve got to clean it up now or we’re not going to have a place to work,'” Hartford said.
“A real table pounder with all of the politics and all of that stuff around there. Glenn was probably one of the key speakers in the lunch room.”
Hartford said the dust level was an issue for Roche for at least two years prior to the Babine explosion, “and after the explosion, he got aggressive and he was really upset.”
However, Roche appeared to be in the minority as concern about keeping the mill running during a tough economic time took precedence over keeping the mill clean, said Hartford.
Hartford testified that as more and more beetle-killed wood was processed, more and more dust accumulated in the mill. When the dust collection system stopped working, he said the air became so thick with dust workers could not see from one end of the mill to the other.
“(It was) to the point where we thought we should not be working in that environment, but we all knew that we were running a third shift, we all knew that we were struggling as a mill… so every single person there was of the attitude that we got to run the mill.
“We weren’t concerned about the sawdust as much as anything, we were more concerned about keeping the doors of that mill open.”
Like the inquest heard in earlier testimony, Hartford described Roche as meticulous. He also noted that Roche’s father, Michael, was a superintendent at the mill and also put a big emphasis on keeping the facility clean.
However, during the last couple of years of his time as superintendent, Michael Roche seemed to let that aspect of the operation slide, in Hartford’s opinion. Then, when a new management team came in, Hartford said cuts were made to staffing that meant significantly less manpower was devoted to keeping the mill clean.
At the time of the explosion, Hartford was an energy system attendant and worked in a different section of the facility away from the sawmill. But usually about once per shift, Hartford said he would go into the mill to check on an aspect related to his job.
Hartford was not on shift when the explosion occurred but had completed a graveyard shift that morning. When he went over to the sawmill during his shift, Hartford said he came across conditions that were the worst he had ever seen.
“It was beyond belief,” Hartford said.
Counsel for Lakeland, Gavin Marshall, challenged Hartford on that remark, noting he made no such comment when interviewed by WorkSafe B.C. investigators following the explosion, Rather, Hartford said he noticed nothing in particular when he was in the sawmill.
In response, Hartford stayed with his most recent remarks.
“I’d seen what I’d seen,” he said.
The other man to die in the Lakeland explosion, Alan Little, who was a supervisor at the mill, was described as level headed and intelligent by Hartford.
“Very calm demeanour,” Hartford said. “Let’s put it this way, if you wanted a guy to fix a conflict in your room, he was your man.”