B.C. Forest Safety Task Force Announces Plan to Rid Industry of Deaths, Serious Injuries

An overarching B.C. forest sector safety accord implemented through an industry-run agency will oversee the certification of some forest workers and the prequalification of contractors in an effort to stop deaths and serious injuries in the province’s forests. But will it include the silvicultural sector?

WSCA Rumour Mill

Summary: The Forest Safety Task Force is determined to eliminate serious injuries and fatalities in the forest sector by recommending certification of certain forest occupations, including fallers and supervisors, along with prequalifying contractors as a condition of elligibility for bidding on forest work. But it does not define how these and other sweeping recommendations would effect silvicultural and wildfire fighting contractors. The WSCA was recently asked by Task Force Chair Doug Enns to participate in the initial implementation process. The report can be read at www.forestsafetybc.com

Last month the Forest Safety Task Force announced its plan to eliminate fatal and serious injuries in the British Columbia’s forest sector by recommending safety training certification of some occupations and positions as well as pre-qualification of contractors in order to bid on forest work. The report contains twenty major recommendations including the creation of an industry safety accord and an industry-run infrastructure to implement proposed changes to how occupational health and safety is practiced in B.C.’s forest sector. All these proposals are to be in effect by next year. The report was ambiguous whether its recommendations include the silvicultural/forestry contracting sector.

With forest sector workers dying at ten times the rate of Canadian police officers or military peace keepers the report stated “the B.C. forest sector as a whole lacks a culture of safety.” It cited fatalism, lack of training and qualified supervision, enforcement issues and competitive cost cutting as major factors in forest worker deaths and injuries. It also identified small operators as the main sources of death and injury. In B.C. of the 7000 registered firms in the forest industry 97 per cent employ fewer than 20 workers accounting for half the forest workforce. At the same time with 25 workers dying annually on the job these small employers account for 67 per cent of serious injuries and 70 per cent of the deaths in the industry.

Although the recommendations are some way from being fully interpreted and implemented some of them represent a potential sea change in forest company relationships with contractors. The report’s overarching principle that safety is a shared responsibility places forest company clients in a direct position of accountability for the behaviour of the phase contractors they employ. It could mean that forest companies would exercise due diligence in the monitoring of their contractors’ health and safety standards of care—even to the point of participating in and auditing the implementation of contractors’ health and safety plans and other regulations and provisions of the Workers Compensation Act.

If brought into effect this shared responsibility principle represents a complete reversal of certain industry operators who have been seen by contractors as tending lately towards divesting themselves of vicarious liability, offloading prime contractor status, and seemingly neglecting obvious contractor breaches of WCB regulations and other statutes. This constructive shift in attitude is reflected in the report’s key recommendation to establish a prequalification health and safety standard for contractors “in order to bid on contracts or timber rights.” The report also recommends that forest companies, tenure holders and employers who “integrate safety as an over-riding priority . . . be recognized through an industry-wide rate incentive program.”

The certification standard for fallers has been in place since last year and the report calls for the forest sector to implement it this year without elaborating on how that would happen. It also calls for the training and certification of supervisors, with a standard in place by September 2004 and implemented in January 2005. Other occupations could require certification if the industry and WCB should decide it is appropriate.

All of the reports key principles and recommendations are to be enshrined in an industry health and safety accord implemented by an industry-run sector-wide infrastructure. All firms in the forest sector would contribute financially to the operation of this “infrastructure” which may not be a single agency or approach.

It is at this point that the vagueness around the silvicultural industry’s status becomes acute. The report manages to both recognize and not recognize the silvicultural sector and its 6000 workers. It clearly defines treeplanting, brushing, weeding and thinning, and firefighting as part of the forest sector. The report continually refers to the whole forest sector as included in its terms of reference. But in its actual recommendations it specifically mentions harvesting and logging but not silviculture.

The report refers to the Forest Industry Safety Association once. Considering the health and safety mandate of FISA and the task force’s proposal to establish an overarching “infrastructure” this brief recognition is perhaps conspicuous. Will FISA be superseded by the proposed “infrastructure?” Or will it be allowed to operate within the various approaches allowed for in the report? If so who will fund it and so on? All this is of direct relevance to the silvicultural sector and its fledgling health and safety program which is hitched to the fate of FISA. If FISA is dismantled where does it leave the silvicultural program, especially when the Task Force seems to have trouble recognizing the silvicultural industry in spite of having been a major component of the forest sector for the past four decades. To lose the silviculture program at this point would be doubly ironic since a recent WCB audit cited the FISA silvicultural program as an model example of strategic development.

Perhaps some of the problem arises out of the the original purpose of the task force which was to address the conspicuous number of fatalities and serious injuries in the forest sector. Most of these come from falling on the West Coast and this should naturally be the main focus. But this should not be at the expense of any of the rest of the sector. The difference between a near-miss and a catastophe is disconcertingly thin. Right now the silvicultural industry on average accounts for one death annually. But every year 15-passenger vans, dangerously overloaded with roof racks, and crummies, driven by often less than fully trained drivers, operate full of silvicultural workers on the most hazardous roads in B.C. Unfortunately when calamity strikes it will likely produce a cluster of serious injuries and deaths, made all the more tragic because the injured and dead will likely be young, and the accident preventable. It has happened in the past in Canada and recently 13 U.S. forest workers died in two vehicle accidents in as many years.

Another area that will likely attract more conspicuous injuries is wildfire fighting. Last year more than 1700 contract crew forestry workers fought fire here in B.C. Fortunately there were very few serious injuries among ground crews. But the Americans who have been regularly coping with wildfire years like our 2003 season continue to lose firefighters with the worst year 1994 seeing 34 deaths. B.C. wildfire forecasters predict more years like the last in the province’s near future.

The report entitled “A Report and Action Plan to Eliminate Deaths and Serious Injuries in British Columbia’s Forests” can be found at www.forestsafetyBC.com It should be required reading for all forest sector firms operating in the province.