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Sawmill safety initiative

Project planning and execution of safety programs in sawmills

December 18, 2023  By Patrick McDonald

Photo: NINENII / Adobe Stock

As we gear up for 2024, safety remains a top priority in the wood products manufacturing industry. For safety managers, mill management, safety co-ordinators and safety committees, the coming year presents an opportunity to reinforce and enhance safety programs in sawmills. Implementing safety initiatives demands a strategic approach rooted in the fundamentals of project management. Let’s navigate through the key considerations and best practices to effectively plan and roll out safety initiatives, tailored to sawmills.

Scoping document: Blueprint for safety success

The journey toward enhanced safety starts with a well thought out scoping document. This foundational step is like crafting a blueprint that guides the entire project. Safety managers, in collaboration with key stakeholders, define the scope, identify crucial deliverables, establish major milestones, and estimate costs and resources. This document becomes the compass for the entire safety initiative.

Key aspects include a clear delineation of goals, a comprehensive assessment of potential risks, and a strategic plan to engage all relevant stakeholders. To ensure alignment and commitment, the scoping document should be signed off by top management – a tangible expression of their support for the safety project.

Project milestones and timelines: Charting progress toward safety excellence

With the scoping document in hand, the next critical step is to break down the project into manageable milestones and establish realistic timelines. A detailed visual timeline ensures that everyone involved understands the sequence of events and the deadlines associated with each milestone. This collaborative effort involves management teams working closely with safety to ensure alignment with broader organizational goals.


Milestones can include the development of training programs, implementation of new safety procedures, and the introduction of branding and signage. Timelines should be ambitious yet achievable, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Communications plan: Enhancing safety culture

Effective communication is the lifeblood of any successful safety initiative. A well-defined communications plan outlines the approach for engagement activities, the choice of communication channels, and the identification of key stakeholders. Safety managers and co-ordinators collaborate to define campaigns and activities that resonate with the workforce.

Communication channels can range from traditional methods like crew talks and newsletters to modern approaches such as videos, QR codes and digital signage. Identifying key stakeholders for communication and branding ensures that the right messages reach the right audiences. A dynamic action plan further ensures the consistent delivery of safety information throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Branding and signage standards: Marketing safety excellence

In the realm of safety, branding isn’t about products. It’s about cultivating a brand of excellence in safety practices. Safety managers and co-ordinators collaborate on establishing branding and signage standards that visually

communicate the importance of safety. This includes consistent use of colours, logos, fonts, and catalog items for purchasers.

To achieve visual consistency across sites, it’s essential to partner with suppliers who understand and align with the safety branding standards. This collaborative effort ensures that safety is not just a set of rules but a culture that permeates every aspect of the sawmill.

Training: Equipping the workforce for safety success

A well-trained workforce is the backbone of a safety-conscious workplace. Safety, in collaboration with HR, take the lead in planning and developing required training programs. These could include crew talks, instructor-led sessions, online LMS (learning management system) courses, blended training approaches, and specialized certification requirements.

Consideration should be given to the diverse learning styles within the workforce. The training plan should not only cover essential safety protocols but also instill a sense of ownership and responsibility among employees. How you will be defining competency should be considered during this step.

IRS (internal responsibility system): Empowering every employee

Integral to safety management is the internal responsibility system (IRS), a framework that identifies responsibilities by stakeholder within the company. Safety managers, in collaboration with senior management teams, ensure that the IRS is effectively communicated and embraced at all levels. This system empowers every employee to take ownership of safety in their respective roles, fostering a culture of collective responsibility.

Tying the IRS with a safety management system (SMS) can further enhance accountability and streamline safety responsibilities throughout the organization.

Safety manual policy: A guiding document for safe practices

Consider creating a safety policy that complements the safety initiative. The policy acts as a guiding document that outlines the overall requirements of the initiative and ties it into the safety program. Safety managers, in co-ordination with HR managers, should review or create these policies that not only meet regulatory requirements but also reflect the unique aspects of sawmill operations. This may involve a blanket policy that aligns with safety legislation in relevant provinces.

Forms and templates should be created along with the policy to build consistency across safety processes and standardization at various operations.

Site safety procedures: Keep safety practical

No two sawmills are identical, and safety procedures should be tailored to the unique context of each site. Safety co-ordinators, with input from mill management teams, develop site-specific safety procedures that complement the initiative. These procedures could be both paper-based and digital, providing a practical and accessible resource for all employees.

Auditing via SMS: Ensuring continued success

The journey toward safety excellence doesn’t end with the implementation of new safety measures; it’s a continuous process of improvement. Safety managers, co-ordinators, and committee members collaborate to implement a SMS that includes regular audits and assessments.

Auditing ensures that the implemented safety measures are effective and identifies areas for improvement. An annual review becomes a crucial component of the SMS, providing an opportunity to celebrate successes, address challenges, and define future safety initiatives.

Successful planning and execution of safety initiatives in sawmills demand a collaborative and strategic approach rooted in the fundamentals of project management. By following these key elements – from the scoping document to communications plans, marketing to annual auditing – wood products manufacturing industry leaders can foster a culture of safety, protect their workforce, and pave the way for a more secure and productive future in 2024 and beyond. Safety isn’t just a project; it’s an ongoing commitment to the people who make sawmills thrive.

Patrick McDonald is a safety specialist at Canfor, with over 15 years of experience working as a safety professional in Canada. He specializes in developing safety solutions in the industrial manufacturing industry.

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