A northern Alberta lumber company convicted this month in the death of a sawmill worker has been ordered to pay a $295,000 creative sentence that will be used to offer new workplace safety training to students.
La Crete Sawmills Ltd. was convicted on Nov. 7 in Fort Vermilion Court of Justice after pleading guilty under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to ensure the health and safety of a worker.
The Fort Vermilion School Division will use the funds to provide workplace safety courses to high school students at its schools in the Peace River region.
The worker was fatally injured at the sawmill on March 31, 2022, when the planer he was working on jammed.
Planers, also known as surfacers, are used to dress and size rough-sawed lumber into boards of even thickness.
The man who died was feeding boards into the machine when it jammed. Investigators believe he was attempting to unjam it using a steel bar.
The company was initially charged with three additional counts for allowing the employee to work on the planer without shutting it down, failing to ensure the machine was powered off to prevent “accidental activation,” and failing to protect the worker from coming into contact with the moving parts of machinery. Those charges were later dropped.
La Crete Sawmill says it employs about 160 people in La Crete, a hamlet 685 kilometres north of Edmonton, which has a population of 3,800.
The company’s operation includes a two-line sawmill with two dry kilns and a remanufacturing facility.
CBC asked company officials for comment on this story but did not receive a response.
A legacy in education
The Fort Vermilion School Division, which operates La Crete Public School, will use the proceeds of the fine to implement instructor-led safety courses for students in Grades 10 through 12.
In addition, high school students will have access to online workplace safety programs including crane safety, forklift safety and hazardous goods handling certifications.
Division superintendent Michael McMann said the new programs will ensure the next generation of workers in the community is better trained in workplace safety.
When a tragedy like this happens, we’re all connected.– Michael McMann
The division has many collegiate programs and offers its students a range of vocational training, including work placements, he said.
Many students go on to work in the trades, and often find employment in the handful of sawmills in the region. But the certifications will serve students well, no matter what career paths they choose, McMann said.
“There isn’t really a work environment that doesn’t require safety aspect or some sort of certification,” he said.
“And so if we can get that training to them before they get to an employer and then an employer reinforces that, I think we’re just protecting our kids in the world from these accidents from happening.”
The new training programs will provide a lasting legacy to a young man who was well-known in the tight-knit community, he said.
“When a tragedy like this happens, we’re all connected.”
Craig Kennedy, a lumber industry safety consultant in Salmon Arm, B.C., said ongoing safety training is critical in sawmills. He said they are particularly high-risk environments, and planers are powerful machines.
The way the La Crete worker died speaks to a lack of training, especially on standard locking-out procedures, Kennedy said.
“It tells me there was a fall-down on communication with the employer and the employee — just the fact that he wasn’t aware that was such an unsafe practice,” he said.
When a machine such as a planer malfunctions, it should be shut down immediately and powered off until repairs can be completed, Kennedy said.
Sawmill workers often wear special locks on their belts that are placed on broken or jammed equipment to ensure a machine will remain unused until it can be safely fixed and inspected.
Kennedy said he hopes the fine — and the worker’s death — will act a reminder to others in the industry to ensure their employees are properly trained on the hazards of the job.
It’s an opportunity, he said, for companies to reflect on their safety programs and do better.
“It’s unfortunate but if you have an incident or a close call, that’s how we learn,” he said. “Maybe it will prevent somebody else from getting hurt.”