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Making B.C. Forests Safer

For the first time in decades, forest industry fatality claims in British Columbia have dropped to less than 10 per year for three consecutive years. In 2009, there were five fatality claims in the industry, in 2010 that number was six; while in 2011 it was eight. According to safety experts, the changes are the result of recent safety improvements, and to a lesser extent, a slowdown in harvesting activity.

“Great strides have been made towards reducing serious injuries and fatalities in the woods and mills due to the combined efforts of industry, government, union, and forestry workers,” says Rob Moonen, director, SAFE Companies of the BC Forest Safety Council (BCFSC). “Seven years have passed since B.C.’s forest industry experienced its worst year ever in recent history for fatalities,” adds Moonen, referring to 2005 when the industry experienced a record high of 34 fatalities.

From 1999 to 2005 there were an average of 25 fatalities per year in the forest industry (an average of 21.6 of them in harvesting). This six-year time period is now used as the safety benchmark to measure against today.

The industry at that time was facing an unprecedented safety crisis, and the press served to spotlight the situation, harshly condemning forestry’s safety record. It was clear to everyone that changes were desperately needed. B.C. forest industry’s serious injury rate was three times as high as the provincial industrial average.

Moonen explains that if the industry had not made safety improvements, beginning half a dozen years ago, and the projected rate of injury had continued, there would have been 51 fatalities expected over the past three years rather than the 19 that did occur.

Implementation of tools such as SAFE Companies Certification and Faller Certification seems to be helping and that is now making it safer for workers, both in the mills and in the woods. The serious injury rate in forestry has been reduced down from three times the provincial average, to now being twice as high, and it appears that the trend towards a safer industry will continue. There has also been a reduction by 30% in time loss incidents per 100 people working. But Moonen says that making permanent changes to improve safety will continue to be a long-term challenge for everyone involved.

“In 2012, industry will need to keep focusing on making permanent and sustainable changes and continually improving on the positive efforts towards reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities,” Moonen says, adding that “Looking at the numbers, it is clear there is a danger of complacency, which may cause injuries and/or fatalities to rise, which is why it’s extremely important for industry to focus and build upon the good work that’s been done.”

Following another spike of 19 fatalities in 2008, the industry showed definite improvements as the fatality number dropped down to five in 2009. Already in 2012, there have been three harvesting-related fatalities very early in the year, in addition to the heavy toll of injured workers and fatalities resulting from the Jan. 20, 2012, explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill at Burns Lake, B.C., which is co-owned by Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affiliates and local First Nations.

Dave Lachance, acting manager, Forestry, Industry and Labour Services, WorkSafe BC, explains that there were more claims in 2011, partially resulting from the surge in economic activity, with more logging taking place as the demand for wood going to China has increased. “An upswing in logging activity is positive for the economy, but there has been a corresponding increase of pressure on the loggers, as they have had to try to compensate for the past three bad years. This means that they need to get the wood out in a hurry just to pay their bills. More activity needs more risk assessment to reduce incidents,” Lachance says.

WorkSafe BC is working to minimize the risks and the injuries. A key component of this strategy is to concentrate on more focused inspections such as The Faller Compliance Strategy Audit (FCSA), Phase III of the Integrated Forestry Compliance Strategy (IFSC), which was developed in 2005. The purpose of the IFCS was to ensure that forestry stakeholders understood the cascading responsibilities for health and safety at forestry operations.

“In 2008, seven certified fallers died due to workplace accidents. Their deaths followed two years without any faller fatalities,” says Lachance.

As a result, WorkSafeBC formed an internal team to examine the reasons why these fatalities were occurring. The teams’ findings and recommendations are contained in the report, Occupational Health and Safety Faller Serious Injury and Fatal Review 2009.

One of the recommendations of the internal review team was “to develop and implement a compliance audit for falling standards in planning, supervision, and worker professionalism,” which they viewed as Phase III of the IFCS.

The FCSA focuses on workplace accountability and responsibility for manual falling activities in forestry operations and consists of three parts:

  1. Faller Supervisor Checklist and Answer Sheets
  2. Faller Checklist and Answer Sheets
  3. Workplace Accountability Compliance (WAC) Checklist and Answer Sheets

The audit process will provide a baseline of manual falling in forestry operations. It will also allow WorkSafeBC to identify strengths and weaknesses in the workplace accountability systems in forestry operations so that improvements can be made and injuries and deaths prevented.

The safety numbers have shown improvements since the peak year 2005.
The data shows a steady decrease over the past 12 years.

Looking to the future, Lachance tells Canadian Forest Industries that WorkSafeBC forestry officers will be focused on reducing serious injuries by concentrating on three main areas: mechanism of injury in the mills (MSI - overexertion); falls from elevation; and “struck-by” incidents. “In the harvesting sector, officers will be reviewing employers’ plans for both falling activities and log transportation,” he says.

If there can be a bright spot when discussing fatalities and serious injuries, it’s that the overall improvement trend in safety has come during the toughest economic slowdown on record. According to BCFSC statistics, when comparing the fatality rate per 10 million m3 harvested, the data shows a steady decrease over the past 12 years. The impact of injuries, and particularly injuries requiring time off the job, and the effects on families are also being reduced. Due to the reduction in the rate of injuries per 100 workers since 2005, in the last two years alone (2009 and 2010) there were over 670 fewer lost time injuries (this number includes fatalities and serious injuries) than there would have been, including over 280 fewer serious injuries. A serious injury is generally defined as an injury that impacts a worker for more than 28 days, or a fatality, or a specific long-term impact.

“That’s 670 families who did not suffer the impact of a worker coming home and not being able to go back to work,” says Moonen.

“In 2012, an additional area of concern for the BCFSC will be developing ways to help industry get injured workers get back to work more quickly,” says Moonen. “Loss time claims now average a duration of approximately 90 days, which is twice as long as the provincial average.”

Moonen adds that as the economy brings more jobs back to the province and the industry seeks to attract new workers to fill the gap created by an aging, retiring workforce, it will become increasingly important to make forestry known as a safe industry – one where younger people can trust that health and safety are a priority and where parents feel that forestry-related careers will be a safe choice for their kids.

“We want to ensure that industry’s efforts do not simply plateau,” Moonen says. “The next step will be for industry to ‘up’ the challenge, and try to reach the ultimate goal of zero fatalities. I believe it is within our grasp.”

Sandra Tice is a forestry writer and editor based in Vancouver, B.C. She produced this article for Canadian Forest Industries.

July 3, 2012  By Sandra Tice

The numbers are improving when it comes to safety in B.C.’s forests. File photo: Canadian Forest Industries magazine. For the first time in decades

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