Safety in Numbers

A collaborative campaign to overhaul safety protocol at Canadian wood pellet plants is evoking positive ripple effects across the industry.
By Anna Simet | July 24, 2017

In April 2012, within just a few months of each other, two massive combustible dust explosions at British Columbia sawmills claimed the lives of four workers, and injured 32. Budd Phillips, prevention field services manager at WorkSafeBC, recalls the aftermath, describing the accidents as “pretty major…traumatic, catastrophic events.”

 The accidents took many in the forest products industry by surprise, according to Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. “That should have been the first wake up call for our [wood pellet] industry, but we were still having a lot of these small incidents—little fires, small explosions—but nobody had gotten hurt,” he says. “And we’d just sort of rectify them with, ‘Well, it’s a dangerous industry.’ ”

In a swift attempt to ensure events similar to what occurred at the B.C. sawmills weren’t looming, WorkSafeBC—a provincial regulatory agency comparable to the U.S.’s OSHA— immediately began visiting other sawmills to observe and assist them in their combustible dust management and mitigation programs. To further build out that effort, in 2014, the organization moved on to other segments of the forest industry susceptible to potential dust problems, including the relatively young wood pellet sector. “We were failing inspections, one after another, and getting these suspensions, closures and orders to comply,” Murray says. “Finally, I got a phone call in May 2014, from one of the WorkSafe vice presidents, and he said, ‘You get everyone in your association on the phone at 9 a.m., and they better be there.’ I tried to gather everyone up, and on the call, WorkSafe basically said, ‘If you guys don’t clean up your act, we have the authority to essentially close your industry down permanently, and we’ll do it. If we deem certain plants to be unsafe, it’s well within the law to order it to close, and never open again.”

WorkSafe ordered association members to meet in Vancouver the following week, according to Murray. “We got a little more lashing, and after we finished the meeting, we asked them if we could keep the room. It was there we asked ourselves, ‘Okay, what are we going to do? Just complain and whine about it and say how mean they are, or we actually going to do something?’ And that was the start of it.”

According to Phillips, for the initial review of B.C. wood pellet plants, the compliance rate was at about 40 percent. “Pretty low,” he says. “It precipitated a significant focus on inspecting their locations, and that led to what we call a focused initiative. We ended having two dedicated officers—myself as a dedicated manager, and then support from our senior manager—to focus on the industry sector and bring it up to a sustainable compliance requirement.”

Then was born WPAC’s Safety Committee, which initially had a main focus on combustible dust control and mitigation. “The challenge that the pellet sector has is that dust is their medium—it’s what they make their product out of,” Phillips says. “So handling it in a safe manner presented some unique challenges.”

But the Safety Committee has been up for that challenge. Fast-forward three years later, and it has proven itself tremendously successful.

Safety Committee
To date, the committee represents over 90 percent of Canada’s wood pellet industry, and other members include insurance companies, equipment suppliers and more, anyone with a vested interest. “It’s incredible,” Murray says. “I get an additional member every couple of months.”

 Murray is quick to emphasize that the work that WPAC has done, in partnership with the B.C. Forest Safety Council and WorkSafeBC, isn’t incredulous. “It’s been nothing magical,” he says. “We just identified that this is a critical issue for us. We have to make it a high priority. We researched all of the technical aspects, beginning with combustible dust and eventually moved on to other things, in order to understand all of the issues and address them. We began having phone calls weekly at the beginning, and now they’re once a month.”

Once each year, a work plan is devised and then continually updated, and certain objectives are assigned to specific persons on the committee. “We hold people accountable, and we make the plan public so that people can see it—we have to live up to it,” Murray says. “It’s a commitment to stick with it. But there is nothing innovative, fancy or Harvard Business School about it, it’s just making it a priority, that list of the thing we need to do to get better, and picking them off one by one.”

The committee began with combustible dust, but has since expanded to other issues including hot surfaces, machinery guards, working at heights, worker training, confined spaces, raw material storage and more, according to Murray. “We have a whole list of things that we’re working on, and we try to keep four or five of them active each month. And we’re strict about keeping these monthly calls to one hour to check in on everyone’s action items.”

Nowadays, producers who have embraced the safety initiative are passing inspections with relative ease. “There’s a high degree of compliance, over 90 percent,” Phillips confirms. “In the past year, we haven’t issued any significant orders in the pellet sector. They have risen to the challenge, and done an extremely good job managing combustible dust.”

Successful and continually evolving, per WorkSafeBC’s advice, the Safety Committee has moved beyond just occupational health and safety, now onto process safety management. “We’re looking at all of the different manufacturing processes and breaking them down into smaller components to devise a system for identifying all of the risks in pellet manufacturing and dealing with change, such as when new equipment is added, and how it will affect other equipment,” Murray says. “It’s something that has been well-adopted in oil, gas and chemical industries, especially in the U.S. We’re just starting down that path, and though it is quite daunting, we’re going to try to pick away at it and just build, over time, to slowly get better and better.”

One way to ensure success of the Safety Committee’s goal is being transparent and willing to divulge information, even when it involves an accident, mistake or oversight, Gordon adds.

Transparency, Teamwork
“One of the things we said early on is that we were going to be open about our flaws—we won’t hide anything, and that we would show WorkSafe, trusting that they wouldn’t overact and shut us down,” he says. “Rather, they see it as an attempt to get better, advise us, and give us the opportunity to improve. It took a bit of faith and trust on their part, to give us that chance to work through a lot of the issues.”

From a regulator perspective, that tactic is right on, Phillips says. “One of the key ways to be successful is to be transparent about it—what have you learned, what have you experienced, and moving forward, what can the industry do to prevent silo fires? We don’t want like incidents in other areas; let’s learn collectively and apply it, so we can learn together across the sector.”

Phillips acknowledges a concern in Canada, about public image and repercussions after fires and explosions. Not just the Canadian industry, but in the U.S. and elsewhere. “There is the social license to operate, and if you continue to have problems with explosions and are viewed as a dangerous industry, it can have a real negative impact on the whole industry, in terms of marketing and being able to develop,” he says.

While Canada’s safety profile has significantly improved over time, there are still frequent incidences reported in the U.S. Most recent, attention has been on a silo fire at Port Arthur, Texas. “It seems like every few weeks there is a new story, and all it does is reinforce how dangerous the pellet industry is,” Murray says. “If that’s what’s going to continue to happen, then the industry is dangerous. We’ve got to do better collectively. If we can take our initiative and cooperate with others, anybody—any association, any individuals, U.S. companies, if they want to join in—we’ll gladly accept them. We’re certainly not closed to anybody, and there’s no cost to it. Pick up the phone, join in and do a little bit of work.” 

For Pinnacle Renewable Energy, Canada’s largest producer with seven operating plants and one under construction, the Safety Committee has been paramount to its operations, and an excellent way to share with and obtain information from other producers, competitor or not. That’s according to Scott Bax, Pinnacle senior vice president of operations chair of the Safety Committee. “This is a huge opportunity,” he says. “We don’t compete on safety—we are willing to share this information, with anyone, any time. Not only does it protect our business, but making everybody’s business safer is the right thing to do for the entire industry. All you need is one or two bad players, and the whole sector gets a bad rap.”

Seizing Opportunity
From Bax’s perspective, aligning with Murray’s and Phillips’ stances, the opportunity isn’t limited to B.C. or Canada, but the industry as a whole, to cooperate and avoid duplicating efforts. “North and south of the border, and in Europe—we don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “People are doing great things, sharing knowledge, and it’s in the better interest of everybody’s companies to share these things. There’s a balance needed to protect yourself from certain liabilities, but something simple might save a life or injury. Greater transparency is needed on this. We already have some great relationships with some U.S. producers like Drax and Enviva, and if we could meaningfully engage safety across the entire industry, it would be super powerful.”

Aside from everything related to safety, multiple positive side effects have stemmed from the initiative. For one, better relationships between producers. “By talking about safety on a regular basis, they have gained more trust of one another,” Bax says. “I have observed companies now cooperating more in other areas besides just safety. They’re sharing ideas and production processes, fiber supply and things like that. Discussions are happening now that wouldn’t have before, it’s just a spin-off of trust that’s been built through the safety initiative.”

And interestingly, committee member companies say that profitability has gone up in direct correlation with their safety measurements. “The two are tied hand-in-hand,” Bax says. “The idea that safety costs money…it’s the total opposite. The safer you are, the less accidents you have. And there are side benefits that have come off of it.”

And last but not least, employee retention—at least, at Pinnacle—is at an all-time high. “As we’ve increased engagement, we’ve really been able to change the perception of Pinnacle within the communities we operate in,” Bax says. “As a result, we’ve been able to dramatically improve our employee retention—95 percent in 2016, across all of our operations. That number wasn’t possible without meaningful engagement, where people feel like they’re creating value across our operations, in every position. With meaningful two-way conversations and feedback between employees and management, we saw our incident rates fall, and our financial results increase dramatically. As you engage your employees on safety, they aren’t just creating a safer work place, but they actually become engaged in every other part of the business, which fundamentally improves the bottom line. It’s really been dramatic—some of the fringe benefits when focusing on safety are all these ripple effects that you start to see—unintended, but positive consequences.”

Despite the many positives spurred from the Safety Committee’s efforts, Bax admits that changes have not come without challenges. “The whole thing has been a big challenge, and change is a slow process—sustainable change, by creating a different workplace culture. People have done things in a certain fashion for months or years, and now you’re asking them to stop, telling them that something that isn’t as safe as it could be. We really try to make things actionable, putting a lot of time and energy in creating bite-sized elements can be rolled out with reasonable ease, or provide the resources, tools and expertise that some of the smaller producers may not have so readily. That’s what we focus on each month when we get together—how do we make actionable change on the ground within our wood pellet facilities? By holding conferences, regular calls and talking about it all of the time. It takes time to build the culture.”

Demonstrating its adaptability, focus and innovative nature, since the beginning of its journey to improve safety measures, the pellet industry has been a very encouraging sector to work with, Phillips adds. “It’s considered a young industry, and that’s a factor in its favor, because it isn’t as entrenched in the way it does things—[producers] are willing to look at new ways to improve health, safety and their image, and it’s something they want to build on as they go into the future.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine