The father of treeplanter Julia James, 20, who died in a treeplanting vehicle accident last year says contractors need to reexamine their industry culture around safety and the treatment of young workers. Colin James made his comments in a moving address to the WSCA conference in Victoria February 4, 2004.
My name is Colin James and I am a family man. I’ve been a carpenter for thirty three years, I was a telecommunications technician for six years, for the rest I was a kid like most other kids growing up in England, being made to go to school, but dreaming about soccer. It doesn’t much matter what I do in my life though, when all is said and done, I am a family man. I don’t just love and take joy in my family, I love and take joy in your family. I love watching young parents as they help their kids dress for baseball and show them how to hold a bat, or watching them tying up the laces of their little skaters or hockey players. I love watching young families pour out of the car at the soccer field, kids running every which way – parents left to carry bags and equipment. I love to see mothers and fathers holding the hands of their skipping, pulling and yanking children as they fare get dragged across a car park into the Dairy Queen. And I love those early morning scenes at the job site when the car pulls up with a couple inside, especially when it’s a young couple, and they may be grinning or joking and you watch them kiss as the wife or girlfriend drops her partner off for work. You don’t watch in a voyeuristic way, just catch a glimpse and smile to yourself and remember when. It’s no different than when the kids were little and you dropped them at school, grabbing at packs, lunch pails and coats, stealing a kiss, opening the door and tumbling out, all in what seemed like one fluid motion. All of these pleasures have been mine, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
I had two daughters: Jenny who is 24, and Julia who was closing in on 21. Julia was an art student at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. No, wait a minute: Julia was a young artist and a musician who was going to art college, she was a poet as well, she had been a wonderful athlete, and she loved to snow board. But it didn’t much matter what Julia did, when all was said and done, she was a family girl.
I went out to Calgary to visit Julia at the end of March last year (2003). Julia had just secured a job with Blue Collar Silviculture for the summer. She was nearing the end of her best school experience for many, many years. Whereas she had felt trepidation when enrolling for her second year at college, there was no hesitation about going for a third year. Also she had spent the summer of 2002 travelling in Central America and she knew she wanted to do more. So she was excited about her new job, she saw tree planting (without ever having done it) as the perfect way to make some money to pay her way through school and hopefully fund a trip somewhere. We went shopping together, found rain gear, thermal underwear, a good thermos, a tent, all those things she might need. It was wonderful to see her so excited, so optimistic. We even went to second hand book stores and picked up a whole summer’s worth of reading. In between I went to a couple of her lectures at the college and “sat in”. There’s a time in every child’s life when holding your hand in public or kissing you when you drop them off somewhere just isn’t cool. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or that they don’t want to kiss you or hold your hand, it’s just that they can’t. I was glad that time had passed. It was pure joy to walk down the halls of her college, Jewels laughing and smiling at her friends, her fellow students, her professors, she holding my hand, greeting them and introducing me. To gaze in awe at her work in the studios and on the walls, to see her ideas, her vision and those of her friends all around me was truly uplifting and inspiring. We played frisbee in Riley Park and we talked, oh how we talked. I kissed her goodbye at the airport and flew out of Calgary with what seemed like all of her enthusiasm, her optimism and her excitement having rubbed off on me. I kissed her goodbye the same way I would have done had I dropped her off to begin a days work planting trees at Tibbles Lake and I left with a smile, already looking forward to seeing her again, soon, when I would undoubtedly hear of all that had happened and how her days had gone. Hear of what she had learned, what she had achieved, what she had earned, what she had gained and what she had lost.
Many years ago Peter Poklington, the then owner of the Edmonton Eskimos, ran into financial problems and figured his best way out of his predicament was to sell his most valuable asset and raise enough cash to salvage his empire. His most valuable asset was Wayne Gretski. Mr. Gretsky, who until that time had played his entire professional life in Edmonton, was asked by the media what he thought of the decision to sell him to the Los Angeles team. He said “My owner, Mr. Poklington ….” and I didn’t catch what else he said. I was stuck, stuck on those opening words: “My owner”. His owner: it didn’t sit right with me. How can one person own another. There have been times in history where people have felt they could own other people. These have been despicable times and despicable blots on our culture and our history. No, when we employ someone, we do not own them. When we employ someone we have struck a deal, we have agreed to an exchange, to trade their time, their energy, their talent, their skill, for money. We have borrowed them. They have been lent to us by those that love them, not their owners, for no one can own another. They have been lent to us by wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and lovers and we must return them.
I, my wife Linde, my eldest daughter Jenny, and hundreds of people who knew and loved Julia, lent her to Blue Collar Silviculture. I kissed her goodbye at the Calgary airport and never saw Julia alive again. On May the 21st, 2003, Linde, Jenny and I flew to Quesnel after having been told Julia had been in a tragic accident and had died. We arrived in Quesnel our hearts in shreds,clinging to each other like candles burning down, feeling like our legs would give way, our muscles not responding. I feared we would become ‘just some puddles, some incomprehensible puddle of melted wax. We weren’t allowed to see Julia, we were told she was “the property of the coroner”. My little girl was “the property of the coroner”. At two in the morning of the 22nd of May, now over 27 hours after Julia had died we could stand it no longer, we forced our way into the hospital morgue. This next part is taken from a victim impact statement written by my daughter Jenny. “She was lying in a black bag in a freezing cold morgue. Her wet clothes clinging to her frigid body, her little hands clenched in her sleeves. I was too scared to look at her hands, too scared to hold them because she was so cold and I didn’t know why her hands were hidden. I didn’t know what I might see. Her eyes, her beautiful big brown eyes, they wouldn’t quite close and I wanted to close them for her but I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do for her. They took her away and they performed an autopsy. Do you know what it’s like to think of someone cutting into your sister? Opening up her lungs, taking her blood. And we weren’t even supposed to touch her – our own flesh and blood – because she is the property of the coroner and evidence in a criminal investigation. My sister is evidence in a criminal investigation. She was 20 years old and to me she was still my baby and I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t hold her, I couldn’t wash the dirt off her face.” So you see, it’s not just employers that sometimes forget that they do not own those they employ. Governments and officialdom make that same mistake too.
All of you here today have heard about my daughter’s death, some through the industry grapevine, some officially and some perhaps only from newpaper accounts. I don’t want to revisit the accounts as reported in the various media, they got it woefully wrong in almost all cases, but I would like to correct those reports and put the record straight. Nearly all accounts placed Julia in a truck returning to camp after being on a drinking binge on their day off. The truck ran off the road and plunged into Tibbles Lake and Julia, unable to get out of the truck, drowned. The truth is that Julia spent no time with the other two people in that accident that day.
Adam Kahtava was another rookie tree planter: he, together with his friend Frank, had arrived in camp on May 10th, just 10 days before the accident. Frank had decided to give up on tree planting and needed a ride into town along with his possessions. As Julia was going to town in her van, and was going alone, they asked if they could go with her and she gladly accepted the company. The three of them arrived in town around noon and took Frank directly to the Greyhound bus station. From there Julia and Adam began the usual “day off” rituals of going to the Rec Centre for a swim and a shower. Then they did laundry, bought a new batch of gloves, and called familiy and friends from the pay phone.
While doing all this, Adam says they enjoyed talking to each other about religion, family, school, travelling, relationships and tree planting. On their way out of town, they stopped at the River Rock Pub as the tree planters would all meet there before heading back to camp. Julia had a couple of beer and played a few games of pool. Adam didn’t drink at all, so Julia asked him to drive (and I quote from Adam’s account: “Not because she had drunk too much, but because she was responsible and aware of the consequences of drinking and driving”.) The two of them left the pub just after nine. In Adam’s own words: “On the way back to camp we listened to music and had many good conversations.” They arrived back in camp around 10:00 p.m.. Does that sound like a drinking binge to you?
As you all well know, the crummies (in this case a Ford Excursion) act as a parlour, a living room, a place where the planters can gather out of the weather, put a C.D. in the player, and relax and visit with each other. You’ve got to admit a Ford Excursion is a step up from a “pup tent”, and that is how Julia ended up in the truck. Sitting in the back, other planters coming and going, listening to tunes and enjoying a beer and each other’s company. Just before 11:00 p.m. someone who had been drinking and had been on a binge got in the Excursion, not to listen to music, but decided to start the truck and took off. As soon as the ignition was switched on all the doors automatically locked and Julia couldn’t get out. Minutes later, they were in the lake with Julia trapped inside. That is where she died.
Now 8 months later – one beautiful, incredible, human being is dead. A family is shattered. A young man who valiantly dived in frozen waters three times, desperately trying to save her, lies awake at night unable to sleep. Another young man has been sentenced to 4 years in a Federal penitentiary. There is more that happened that day that needs to be talked about, and there is much that did not happen that day that needs to be talked about.
I have already told you that I have been a carpenter for over 33 years. I have worked in almost every sector of the construction industry. I have worked in heavy industrial construction, some of which has been done in remote worksites. I have worked in highrise office tower complexes, historical restoration of heritage buildings, and I have worked in residential. I have spent most of my life working with light and heavy equipment, both equally dangerous. I have worked around hazardous materials, and on projects with extremely dangerous components to them. I have worked on my tools and I have worked in a supervisory capacity. And as such, I feel qualified to discuss with you today, the subject of “Safety in the Workplace”. For several years I worked the “annual maintenance shutdown” at the McMillan Bloedell Sawmill in Chemainus. Every year that shutdown began with a safety meeting which included a talk by Neil Burmeister, the mechanical superintendant at the Mill, and every year his talk would include the statement: “Tragic accidents do not happen when one thing goes wrong, when one thing gets overlooked, when one thing gets missed. Tragedy strikes when all the ducks are lined up.” There are those that might think that Julia died because one other person made a huge mistake, made a terrible and impaired choice. Trevor Wishart did all of that, and now he languishes, potentially for the next four years in a Federal penitentiary. But Trevor was only one of the ducks in a line that day.
Let us talk about some of those other ducks. When Linde, Jenny and I went out to the Tibbles Lake camp to visit the site of her death and pick up her belongings, as we approached the camp and could see the planters milling around, Linde stopped suddenly, put her hand to her mouth to stiffle a gasp, and sobbing she exclaimed: “Oh my God, they are all like Julia.” It was a camp full of young people, people just like our Jewels. People on the threshold of their lives. People full of enthusiasm, full of energy and exuberance. What coach, when putting together what he hopes will be a winning team, would weight it so heavily with youth. Where were the “elders”, where were the mentors, where were the old hands who could counsel and guide these young people in more than just the requirements of their work. As the young planters arrived back at camp, some obviously very impaired, some just tired and anxious for a good night’s sleep – as the activities of some began to infringe on others – as the humm of impending disaster grew, where were those that ran the camp in an official capacity? Where were those who, just from experience, could have a calming influence? When accepting fees from campers the company is, to all intents and purposes, the “operator” of that camp, and as such has a responsibility for the camp and the safety of those in it. This particular site, on the shores of Tibbles Lake, had six kayaks: what would have happened had those that were impaired decided to go out in the kayaks in their condition. What would be the result if when only half the crew emerged from their tents in the morning and did not respond to the sound of the crummie’s horn, but out on the water overturned kayaks could be seen bobbing like corks. It is irresponsible to allow the drinking of alcohol and for it to go unchecked and unmonitored. When putting together crews for any project, it is imperative that consideration be given to “balance”, to “leadership”. A team leader must be able to garner respect, inspire and motivate, and he must be able to create a sense of “team” which is another word for “family”: in a family, we look out for each other. There was nobody looking out for Julia that night and, frankly, there was nobody looking out for Trevor that night.
There have been many times over the years, when the people on my crews have had to dig deep. In the old days, on “shutdowns”, 18 and 20 hour shifts were common place. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing the weather is bitter, it is wet, cold and miserable, but like it or not the job has to be done, there is no 7th Cavalry going to crest the hill and the weather is not going away, and the day is going to be a long one. So best get at it and get it over with. Everyone has left the trailer in the same mind, everyone has known what they must do and together we pull it off. What better way to say “thanks” at the end of such a day than with a case of beer and maybe a pizza: you can cover a lot of miles with a case of beer. But to hand out the beer, say “thank you” and then walk away with a “see you on the next one” or “see you tomorrow”, is criminally negligent. When you give out alcohol as a “management tool”, as a “thank you” or just as “the glue that binds”, you have a responsibility to every person present that you will get them home safely and you have a responsibility to their families and the general public.
Companies obviously know there is potential for not just small accidents, but very serious emergencies. There are rules and regulations around the providing of “first aid” in any industrial setting. The further from a hospital or emergency services you are, the more first aid facilities you must supply or provide. And when you are at a remote site you are responsible to provide vehicles to transport victims and or patients to an emergency facility. That is why the crummies were left strategically placed around the site with the keys in them. The trouble was, there was no thought given to who will be awake, aware, cognisant, sober and able to take control in an emergency situation, and who would be in any shape to respond and drive in an emergency situation. There were no precautions taken to prevent someone who shouldn’t drive the vehicle from making the disastrous decision like those that Trevor made that night. And there was no one able to stop him after he’d made them.
On all remote worksites that I have worked on, one of the first things we do is create an emergency response team. You will be amazed at the pools of talent found in any body of workmen (this is another reason for designing your crews with balance in mind). You will often as not find someone who has been, or is, a volunteer fireman (this often means they have a first responder’s ticket). You may find someone who has been a member of a search and rescue team or been on a ski patrol. You may have a Ranger Scout, or someone with rock climbing ability, maybe someone who has been a lifeguard at a pool, or someone who is a member of St. John’s Ambulance. Once you have put together your team, you hold weekly meetings to discuss and go over your preparedness, to talk and problem solve and try to imagine and plan for possible scenarios. To set up mock accidents in which you can get the entire crew involved. I know people who have been in the same volunteer fire department for 30 years and they still go to practice every week. If you do not practice emergency response you will never be able to deal with one. The night Julia died, three people left the safety of the shore, waded out into those frozen waters to try to save Julia. As soon as they got to where the water was up to their chests they had trouble breathing. One person got beyond that point and dived. He dived three times. Each time, those on the shore – because of the experience of the others that could not breath when in the water – must have been aware there was a danger, a possibility that each time Matty dived he may not come up. If he hadn’t, two people would have died that night, for not only was there no equipment or means to rescue Julia, there would have been no way to rescue Matty. That night Matty, armed with nothing but his courage, tried to save Julia. Outside of that no attemps were made, no ideas were put forward, no plans put into action, no problem solving embarked upon. Not one person who I have talked to in my line of work about this has been able to understand this fact. A hundred yards from the accident site is a heavy equipment machine shed. On the shores of the lake in the campsite were six kayaks. There were numerous company vehicles equipped for “off road” (4 x 4’s with lift kits). Nearly everyone can see why it was so hard to get Julia out of the truck under the water, but no one can understand why that vehicle was not literally ripped out of the water in a respectable time.
It is not sufficient for any company to go into a remote area equipped with a box of bandaids, some q-tips, some iodine, a stretcher and an eyewash. That camp was on the shore of an ice cold lake, consisted of dozens of pup tents and small cars sitting among standing timber in various stages of health. One tree could easily, in a wind storm or due to thunder and lightening, come down across six tents. How would you get people out from under such a tree? When we established an emergency response team we put together an “emergency response kit”. It would consist of a gangbox and in it would be a good ready to go chainsaw with a sharp chain fully gassed up, a hydraulic heavy duty jack, a large pry bar, a “come along” and a “turfer”, a snatch block, a cable, halogen lights and a generator, a cutting torch and oxygen and aceteline bottles. This is not necessarily what you would require in your industry, but you need to design a kit that will enable you to respond to scenarios you may be faced with. It should definitely be mandatory that all company vehicles have a winch attached to them. How different things might be today, if that first company vehicle to arrive at the scene had had a winch.
When I begin a job, for every job, I complete a hazard analysis and I write up a “safe work plan”. I list all dangers my crew may encounter, toxic chemicals, gases, caustic or carcinogenic materials and products. I talk about the dangers created by the different weather conditions we may face, and how they may further impact our job. I list all safety equipment, including the crews’ personal safety equipment, that we will employ and we will discuss its correct use. I will identify the closest shower and eyewash station, review all phone numbers and contacts in case of an emergency, and where the closest phones can be found from where they will be working. Each crew member has to be taken through that safe work plan, they must sign it to show they understand it and, as long as that job is ongoing, that plan is reviewed as part of a tool box safety meeting at the beginning of every shift. Those phone numbers are posted at different spots around our site so they become as well known as 911.
Your crews need to know where the closest farmer is from their camp, where the nearest logging operation can be found and how they can be reached. They need to know the closest gas or service station, or any other place they may be able to find help, whether that help be human or mechanical.
When the crew gathers together, whether to mobilize or for lunch, at any time, “take two”: take two minutes to just remind them of one safety issue, quiz them about just one of the emergency numbers they can call, reward them when they show they have committed these to memory. Give out a ball cap with your company name, award a hackey sack, it’s just a dollar or two, and it could mean the difference between life and death.
I would like to touch on culture in your industry. Culture is a broad and comprehensive subject. It is like our blood, we have red cells and white cells and we must keep them in balance. We also have good bacteria and bad bacteria, and again balance is everything. There are facets to the tree planting culture that are admirable and it is, without doubt, these things that draw so many young people to your industry, and have done so for succeeding generations of planters. But culture should not be static. We inherit the previous practices of our industry and accept them without questioning them even when they are inappropriate, or the industry has outgrown them. It is not until tragedy strikes that we shine a spotlight on our culture. Well, tragedy has struck, and in the last 10 years it has struck 13 other times. This is unbelievable and unacceptable. Back in the late sixties your industry was born, those people that planted back in those early years, they are your elders: where are they today. They are not around anymore, in part because the job is being reduced to not much better than a paltry wage. It is also a brutal industry, it is incredibly hard work. I know what that is like, I work in an industry myself that is hard, it is physically hard and physically demanding. So that there is often an imbalance with more young people out there. The old people, some hang in there, some get jobs in hardware stores. So because tree planting is so brutally hard, and there are very few old timers left, you have to find other elders, you have to find elders who aren’t old. You have to find those qualities that an elder has, you have to recognize those qualities in the young people that return. They could be 30, 32, 34 or they could be 40. They don’t have to be old and grey and bespectacled, like me.
You need to promote these qualities, you need to nurture these qualities. You need to recognize them and you need to reward them. It is important that you keep these people with you. It is important that you don’t lose these poeple from your industry. It is important that every year you do not get a completely new crop of people, that you don’t get a camp just full of people like my Julia. So that there is somebody there to look out for them; that there is somebody there to mentor them; that there is somebody there that just has some degree of maturity, who can recognize and see impending disaster.
All across this country, if you listen to the news, you’ll hear that in Vancouver Indo Canadian elders are gathering together, banding themselves into small groups and organizations. They are trying to figure out a way they can solve a terrible problem. Their problem is their young people: they are getting into trouble and they are dying. In the North, Inuit and Indigenous elders are struggling with the terrible reality that they are losing almost an entire generation to suicide and substance abuse. In the inner city slums and ghettos, young poeple are being lost to the violence of gangs and drugs. All across this country elders are gathering to try to find a way out of this crisis.
It doesn’t matter what group of people you are. Elders have a responsibility. You people here today are the elders of your industry. I can see people around here the same age as me, but there are many of you that are a lot younger than me, you are still the elders. And it is for you to gather. For you to get together, to talk about these things and to find solutions. Because one death is too many.
I’ve talked to people in your industry and I know that back in the ’70’s there was an opportunity to earn more money than you can earn today, and you work just as hard today. I know that the business is competitive and I know that you have to fight for those jobs. You have to sharpen your pencils. You have to be very conscious of your bottom line. But there are places to save money. It doesn’t have to be on the backs of the workers or at the expense of safety. Let’s face it, a Ford Excursion is rather a deluxe crummie.
If you need to pay your young people who return year after year a little bit more because they have qualities such as leadership, maturity, and responsibility; pay them a little more. Keep them coming back, don’t lose them from your industry, don’t turn tree planting into the “McDonald’s” of the resource/forest industry. Don’t turn it into a minimum wage job where there is no sense of self-worth. The kids that I have talked to, they love what they do. They love the feeling that they get from being out there in the bush and doing something that they consider worthwhile -something that feeds and nurtures them. Keep them coming back, don’t lose them. Don’t end up with one branch manager and hundreds of kids like McDonald’s. Keep them coming back and keep them alive.