What Can We Learn From 13 U.S. Deaths?

Two forestry/fire line contractors have had thirteen workers die in the last two years in two job-related accidents. What do these American tragedies say to Canadian contractors in the forestry industry?

14 October 2003 Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association

Rumour Mill Roundup

What Can We Learn From 13 U.S. Forestworker Deaths?

Last February I attended the National Wildfire Suppression Association annual convention in Nevada where I met wildfire suppression contractor Mike Wheelock. Wheelock runs Oregon-based Grayback Forestry which along with protection contracts does forestry work across the West. In June 2002 he suddenly lost five fire fighter employees in a van roll over in Colorado.

At the same conference I met Bob Krueger of First Strike Environmental another forestry/fire line contractor. This summer Krueger lost eight fire fighters in a gruesome highway collision in Oregon. That case is still unfolding with evidence showing alcohol was involved in the accident. The district attorney is pursuing Krueger’s company in court which could set a American precedent for employer liability. It is being watched by businesses across the U.S.

Having met Krueger and Wheelock they impressed me as thoughtful and conscientious contractors, both trying to run good companies. They reminded me of many of the silvicultural contractors here in Western Canada who maintain decent firms and adhere to the laws of the land. Their tragic experiences also reminded me that our own Canadian industry is not immune to these kinds of disasters.

Both Wheelock and Krueger had to manage (Krueger still is) their own immediate gut reactions to these events which are physical, emotional and significant. They also had to keep their companies afloat while at the same time dealing with grieving relatives, worried employees, the courts and the media. It is not surprising that many businesses don’t survive this kind of ordeal.

Although obviously a private person Mike Wheelock took time at the NWSA conference to describe his experiences in the hope of reducing the chances that a similar tragedy might happen to others in the room. Helping him with his remarks was Leslie Habetler a professional crisis manager. Wheelock brought Habetler on board after the crash to steer him through the immediate catastrophe and its aftermath.

Speaking to the conference Habetler outlined how to manage and prepare for company crises. She defined a crisis as anything that interferes with your ability to stay in business or challenges your credibility and reputation among your peers and clients. Habetler looked at recognizing problems before they blow up, the personal and physiological impacts of being involved as a manager, and corporate structures you need to have in place to deal with a crisis.

In spite of the corporate emphasis Habetlers talk was primarily a personal experience for everyone in the crowd. Animated by Wheelock’s personal talk and Habetler’s pragmatic strategy it was easy—in fact, unnervingly easy—to see your own company caught up in a disaster. It also served to galvanize everyone’s conviction to do whatever they could to maintain effective health and safety practices so they would never have to face such an ordeal.

Bob Krueger was in the audience at the time and afterwards complimented Habetler on her workshop. He remarked that he hoped he would never have to use her services. Habetler is now acting for Krueger as he goes through the trying consequences of this summer’s accident. WSCA P2

Leslie Habetler will speak at this year’s WSCA annual conference in February in Victoria. It may amount to a keynote address on health and safety matters because it will address a part of our organizational structures and culture that we habitually don’t want to acknowledge: how prepared are we for the worst? Answering a question like this is not necessarily an exercise in fatalism. In fact dealing with it may lead to preventing a crisis in the first place. Secondly it will give you a plan should bad things happen. Mostly it could save lives and your company.

Leslie Habetler has published a short article in the NWSA newsletter on preparing for a crisis which I recommend. It can be read on the WSCA website at:

http://www.wfca.ca/Resources/Articles/2003/2003-10-14.AreYouReady.shtml

For more information on the 2004 WSCA annual conference go to:

www.wfca.ca