B.C. loggers stake hope on corporate killing law

Forestry's risk-taking mindset must change
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/20/2006

With deaths in British Columbia’s forestry industry last year more than doubling those of 2004, calls are growing for charges to be laid under Bill C-45, also known as the corporate killing law.

Tree faller Bob Strang died last month when he was struck by a snag while cutting timber at Marble River on Vancouver Island. His death, the 43rd last year, occurred just days after some 100 forestry industry representatives, including chief executive officers, union leaders and regulators, gathered in Vancouver for a one-day summit to decry the death toll in the log harvesting industry.

Strang’s death also prompted the province’s coroner to announce he will review the circumstances around a number of incidents.

The industry has to get rid of the mentality that dangers come with the job and that a certain number of deaths and injuries is acceptable, said Steve Hunt, director of the western Canada district for the United Steelworkers

Referring to the media coverage last month of the police officer in Laval, Que., who died on the job, Hunt found it poignant that there was such a tribute to the eight police officers who died while on duty last year.

“When a police officer or firefighter is killed, it gets national attention — and rightfully so. That’s a person going to work. It seems to me that when a forest worker dies, it’s relegated to Page 32 of the local newspaper if that. And there’s no acknowledgement that the only thing the person did was get up in the morning to go to work, and it costs that person his life,” said Hunt.

With 43 deaths as of the middle of last month, the number of deaths in 2005 in the forests, lumber milling operations and in transit by logging trucks, helicopters or boats has doubled that of 2004. According to industry statistics, two-thirds of the serious injuries and seven in 10 deaths are incurred by small companies, which employ about half the workforce.

Tanner Elton, chief executive officer of the B.C. Forest Safety Council, cautioned against drawing conclusions with the available figures. “It’s important to understand that we’re not seeing a heightened level of fatalities. We’re seeing a heightened level of public awareness of the fatalities,” said Elton.

If the number of deaths last year was more than twice that of 2004, it’s partly because logging activity on the coast was shut down for a good portion of 2004, and partly due to increased logging activity in 2005, said Elton.

“So yes, we’re having an awful year but this isn’t new. The B.C. forest sector has been the most dangerous sector; it has incurred the highest level of serious injuries and fatalities in Canada for years,” said Elton.

The B.C. Forest Safety Council was created last fall as part of a package of solutions recommended by a task force in January 2004 after it examined the reasons for heightened dangers in the industry. The mandate of the council, which has representatives from both industry and workers’ associations on its board, is to focus efforts on safety in the sector and implement the recommendations of the task force.

First the council is working to change the industry’s risk-taking mindset, said Elton.

“The most important and most difficult is cultural change. We have to get to a point where the safety of workers and work sites becomes an overriding priority for everyone in the system, and that includes the workers. We have had for a long time in this industry a degree of fatalism and machoism that this is a dangerous business and a level of serious accidents and fatalities is part of the sector. And that must be flatly rejected at all levels.”

Second, safety must be taken into consideration in all aspects of the business, said Elton, citing as example the industry’s pattern of rushing timber harvesting when stumpage rates are high.

A third strategy is the training and certification of workers, which is proceeding with the new requirement under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations that all fallers have certification or be registered for certification, effective last July 31. Efforts are also under way to develop a certification program for supervisors.

Elton also stressed the fourth point, which is to make sure “companies have in place all the necessary safety requirements and that companies themselves take that responsibility instead of simply responding to terms and conditions (set by the) workers’ compensation board.”

Bill Boardman, a director of the Western Fallers Association and a third-generation faller, acknowledged that some responsibility falls on the workers — particularly the sense of invincibility that younger workers sometimes display, or the work habits that have workers sometimes drinking or using drugs at camp.

But the brunt of the blame has to fall on the relentless push for profit, particularly in an industry that’s so reliant on the contracting out of work to independent operators, he said. When companies that hold the rights to harvest timber contract out the harvesting work, too often they don’t care about the contractors’ safety records and policies as they award the contract to the lowest bidder, he said.

The contractors, when they have workers calling attention to a hazardous practice, too often respond by telling the workers to start cutting or start walking, said Boardman, who was still mourning the loss in November of a friend of 25 years, Ted Gramlich.

What Gramlich was doing at the time — cutting a second tree to push over a first tree that did not fall, and then going below the first tree to make a cut — was dangerous and reckless, acknowledged Boardman.

But he also pointed to a number of rules broken by the company that resulted in Gramlich “lying bleeding on the hillside for two or three hours,” said Boardman. Although the company was required to ensure that assistance was readily available, the helicopter the company had on stand-by was grounded. What’s more, had the helicopter been in use, it wouldn’t have been able to land because there was no heli-pad, said Boardman, whose comments were confirmed by investigators.

He called on WorkSafeBC, the province’s workers’ compensation board, to send out more inspectors and stop giving contractors advance notice of work-site visits. He added the way to rid the industry of risk-taking is to issue large enough penalties to make it financially unviable for people to take risks.

WorkSafeBC is doing just that, said spokesperson Donna Freeman. It is tightening enforcement by increasing the presence of health and safety officers in forest operations. And it has penalized companies up to $270,000 for wilful or repeated safety offences. WorkSafeBC has also referred one forestry employer to criminal prosecutors for possible charges under Bill C-45, said Freeman.

Hunt, of the United Steelworkers, would go further. On top of calling for a coroner’s inquest for each forestry death, the Steelworkers want a special prosecutor “to investigate each of the fatalities or serious accidents to see if there’s an ability to enforce Bill C-45. With 43 fatalities and close to 100 serious accidents, something is going wrong,” said Hunt.

“When people die, there should be reasons for their deaths, and if their deaths were caused by negligence, then someone should go to jail.”

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