WCB safety figures show an increase in injuries in the silvicultural industry. Establishing a WCB-funded health and safety association could reduce injuries and costs.

Silviculture Safety and Wage Statistics Show Disturbing Trends

It is time to take some collective action on health and safety for the industry

There are some disconcerting safety and earnings figures coming out B.C.’s Workers’ Compensation Board that need to be looked at by the silvicultural contracting industry. Treeplanting and standtending injury rates are among the highest in the province and well above other forest sector activities. Treeplanting sits at 18 injuries per one hundred, chemical brushing at 23, and spacing at 31. By comparison the logging sector injury rate is 6.2 injuries per hundred with the more hazardous hand falling class at 9 injuries per hundred.

Some silvicultural contractors have dismissed these industry trends saying that the injuries are not often severe or fatal and therefore more acceptable. But it’s a specious defense. Because workers may not be killing or crippling themselves does not logically answer the sheer volume of hurt that seems to increasingly characterize the industry. Between 1995 and 1999 treeplanting contractors in B.C. paid over $6-million in claims. Spacing contractors, who comprise a much smaller workforce, paid almost $5.5-million over the same period. These are monies this industry can scarcely afford.

Wage trends add another bleak dimension to this statistical portrait. According to WCB, average weekly earnings for the treeplanting industry have declined 20 per cent over the period 1995-1999. In 1999 the industry average weekly wage for treeplanting was $695. Spacers earned a weekly average of $672 for the same year. All anecdotal evidence for the past two years suggest the pattern of decreased earnings is continuing. What these aggregate figures show is a workforce working harder to earn less money and injuring themselves in the process.

Nevertheless the market can’t be completely blamed for the present predicament. Poor training, poor supervision, poor claims management are all factors along with low wages and increased competition. Some companies have developed their own safety programs which they guard with some justifiable jealousy and use to market themselves. But even this responsible and practical strategy on the part of individual companies evidently is having little affect across the industry. Injury rates continue to rise and having a well organized corporate health and safety program is not necessarily a guarantee of more access to work. In fact in some markets, where price is the sole indicator of bidding success, carrying the costs independently for safety could be an impediment, especially when other competitors have applied minimal of no effort towards worker health.

For the past few years the W.S.C.A. has begun investigating the advantages of belonging to another or setting up its own health and safety association for the silvicultural industry. These programs have proven successful for other industries in reducing injury rates and costs while improving training and creating an industry safety culture. The association and its programs are paid for through an additional levy on the WCB base rate for the industry. The logic is that the extra costs eventually pay for themselves by bringing down assessment rates through reduced claims.

Collectively getting our injury rates and costs in order are two good reasons to look into the health and safety association model. The Liberal government has indicated it wants to see a more performance-based approach to safety which will require developing standards specific to our industry. A health and safety association would be helpful in establishing these criteria. Training costs would be reduced through an association while creating standardized courses and certification. A faller certification program which will effect spacers in the province is in the works. It is a good example of where a health and safety association could reduce costs.

The money needed to create a health and safety association on our own would run between 25 and 40 cents per $100 dollars of assessed payroll. This cost reflects the relatively small pool our industry represents. Another option is to join the already established B.C. Logging Health and Safety Association which would bring those costs as low 8 cents per $100 assessed payroll. Joining the BCLHSA would have us up and running with little delay and no start up costs. We could use programs already in place and the BCLHSA has reserved two seats on their board of directors to ensure us some autonomy to develop strategies to address problems specific to our industry. We could have an operating association as soon as next year, perhaps even sooner if we choose this strategy.

Another option is to do nothing. However if the trend continues there is little to prevent us from possibly spending more money on WCB to cover for steadily increasing injuries. We need a more strategic collective approach to this problem and we need to act soon.