What is needed to stop killing and maiming our forest workers

On Dec. 5, 2005, Steelworkers hosted the B.C. Forest Fatalities Summit in response to the rising tide of injury and death in the provincial forest sector.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On Dec. 5, 2005, Steelworkers hosted the B.C. Forest Fatalities Summit in response to the rising tide of injury and death in the provincial forest sector.

We brought together industry regulators, company executives, cabinet ministers, Opposition MLAs, forest workers and the media to understand why so many forest workers were dying on the job. By year’s end, the tally reached an astounding 43 deaths.

This summer, 7,000 Coastal workers struck for four months, largely because they were sick of long and dangerous shifts. A 2004 government-imposed contract forced workers to travel or work up to 16 hours a day, so employers were given an opportunity to order almost any shift that fit into an average of 40 hours per week.

Despite reams of research or workers’ own experience, employers’ representatives disputed any connection between long hours of work, long or irregular shifts and worker fatigue. Some said that without the unilateral right to set hours of work and shifts, they would go out of business.

Steelworkers don’t want to drive them out of business. But they clearly want change in an industry that on average kills 22 workers a year and maims another 92, according to statistics from the recently-released B.C. auditor-general’s report on safety in the forest sector.

That report ties together events since the imposed collective agreement of 2004 and the Forest Fatalities Summit in late 2005. Launched in response to Steelworkers’ campaign against conditions causing death and injury in forestry, the auditor-general’s report confirms much of what we say is wrong and what should be done.

The report confirms our assessment that a systemic “culture of desperation” followed deregulation of the forest sector and the shift to widespread contracting out under the Liberal government. This led to a “race to the bottom”: Small firms cut prices to get contracts, the report notes; this “disables the safety infrastructure” and “splits the responsibility for profit from the responsibility for safety.”

With 90 per cent of firms in the industry now tiny contractors, forest licensees can shirk responsibility by downloading safety onto them, even though they’re ill-equipped to handle it and under constant pressure to cut costs.

While this process reduced regulatory oversight and supervision, corporations also reduced supervision of sites or downloaded responsibility; again, contractors can’t afford proper safety training or management. Deregulation also causes fragmented authority without vigorous enforcement of regulations; the auditor-general supports the USW’s call for more inspections, more follow-up and punishment for non-compliance.

This leads to the auditor-general’s observations on forest planning. While Occupational Health and Safety Regulations supposedly trump other rules, “in practice operational planning and production pressures often focus attention more on timber extraction than on elimination of risks to workers.”

WorkSafe BC experts aren’t currently part of the planning loop — they only see plans in operation, often when it’s too late. The report sensibly says that “robust safety planning in all aspects of forest operations should be made mandatory by the Ministry of Forest and Range.”

That means the ministry should immediately accept Steelworkers’ long-standing recommendation for a safety objective in the Forest and Range Planning Act, so that those who prepare and authorize plans are legislatively responsible for their impact.

Indeed, the auditor-general’s report is largely about responsibility. Government, it says, should reassert regulatory responsibility for an industry that “tolerates danger, values independence and expects no supervision” and in which “economic drivers remain a threat to safety.”

Big companies have to take responsibility for the fact that “the safety infrastructure that once existed … has eroded with the shift to contracting out;” today “there is no coordinated safety system of prevention, inspection and supervision extending through the largest companies down to … contractors and independent operators.”

These are all problems to which Steelworkers have alerted employers, government and the public. The auditor-general’s recommendations represent an opportunity to rectify them.

We urge government and industry to adopt them immediately — if for no other reason than that on the day before the report was released another Vancouver Island forest worker died on the job.

Stephen Hunt is Western Canadian director of the United Steelworkers based in Burnaby.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008