Forestry deaths blamed on downloading

B.C. coroner’s jury recommends changes to heath and safety, workers’ compensation laws

Ted Gramlich, 52, had 30 years of experience as a tree faller when, last November, he made a fatal decision. A tree he was cutting while on an 89-per-cent slope near Nanaimo, B.C., didn’t fall all the way. He tried to push it over by felling a second tree, but it only tipped over and leaned on the first one.

Counter to safety standards, Gramlich went back to the first tree and tried to saw off the wood at the bottom that kept the tree up. The tree lurched, pinching his saw bar. With his spare saw sitting in the truck, a 40 minutes’ walk away, he decided to keep chopping the first tree with an axe.

It fell, freeing the leaning tree, which came down on Gramlich. He died from his injuries.

An investigation by WorkSafeBC, British Columbia’s workers’ compensation board, found that the prime contractor, LJC Contracting Ltd., did not understand its obligations to ensure safety compliance among its subcontractors. LJC had spotted Gramlich doing faulty work three days prior, but did nothing about it. Had safe practices been enforced, the accident might have been prevented, the board concluded.

A coroner’s jury saw more systemic problems. As a result of changes in B.C.’s forest industry, health and safety responsibilities have been downloaded to contractors and subcontractors, it said.

The finding supports what the United Steelworkers have been saying as the death toll last year hit 43, more than twice the average in the previous five years.

In its recommendations, the coroner’s jury called on the province’s labour minister to review the Workers’ Compensation Act and clarify the language of the legislation as it relates to owners, timber tenure licensees, supervisors and prime contractors. The government should also review the act in terms of how it pertains to single-employee companies, the jury recommended.

The jury also directed the bulk of its recommendations to the B.C. Forest Safety Council, an industry association. The council should set safety program standards and hiring standards for prime contractors, it said. The council should also set standards for supervising hand-falling sites that would include daily supervision of workers, shorter inspection intervals when someone has been found to use unsafe work practices and suspension of owners or operators if they don’t address unsafe practices.

Tanner Elton, CEO and executive director of the council, said one of the recommendations is already being implemented. The SAFE Certified Company program, which was launched earlier this year but really got going last month, is based on the certificate of recognition program offered by Alberta’s workers’ compensation board.

Under this program, companies get a five-per-cent reduction on premiums if they pass a health and safety audit. Those with functioning return-to-work programs get another two per cent discount and those that improve safety performance are awarded another eight per cent.

Standards for certification will be raised as the council develops training programs to support them. For example, fallers now have to be certified but supervisors aren’t. Next year, companies will have to have certified supervisors to get the SAFE certification.

Although the program is voluntary, Elton said he expects about 5,000 employers, or about 90 per cent of the industry, to take part. Eventually, companies will have to be certified in order to bid on Crown land tenures, he said.

“It’s a carrot in the sense that there’ll be some financial benefits to being part of the program. It’s also a stick in that basically, if you’re not SAFE certified, you won’t work. You won’t be able to bid on stuff. You won’t be hired. We think that’s the way to go,” said Elton.

The jury also called for WorkSafeBC to maintain this year’s increased level of inspection and enforcement, which has seen only six fatalities by the end of September compared to 38 at the same time last year.

Robin Schooley, a spokesperson for WorksafeBC, said the board is also conducting a complete review of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation that deals with forestry operations. A draft will be available later this month for public consultation, and amendments based on the feedback will go before a formal public hearing process next May.

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