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February 2004

SAFETY IN THE FOREST

Addressing the danger of falling trees

Falling trees in BC continues to be extremely dangerous work, but the province’s WCB is taking steps to address that with a new faller training and certification program.

By Don Dahr

Forestry starts with—and ultimately depends on—getting timber out of the bush. This makes the work of falling trees the heart of the industry in British Columbia. Continuing the analogy, falling is like the heart in at least two other ways: It’s a relatively small part of the industry, and how well it functions carries far-reaching implications for the well-being, even the existence, of the main body. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the past has never been the picture of good health, and it looks particularly grim today. The occupation of falling is in critical condition now, with disturbing symptoms totally disproportionate to its size. Making up only about a tenth of the forest industry’s work force, production fallers:
• Accounted for nearly 23 per cent of all 2001-02 fatalities in the industry;
• Suffered a fourth of the industry’s serious injury claims for 1998-2002;
• Recorded 88 per cent of the industry’s severe compensation claims (those costing $35,000 or more) in the same five-year period.

An even bleaker picture emerges when the comparison is to all other BC workers. Average compensation costs for hand fallers run three times higher, and they are off work 30 per cent longer. The truly terrible thing is that none of this seems as shocking as it would be if we were talking about almost any other industry employing skilled workers. It’s as if someone decided that a condition of employment for fallers must be to endure unnecessary risks that result in serious injuries or fatalities. What drives the carnage is more complicated than the fact that fallers earn a living doing hazardous work in hostile, physically demanding and remote terrain. Anyone accepting that as a complete explanation is basically saying, “That’s the way it is…nothing can be done,” or “It’s the cost of doing business in a harsh environment.” Both are wrong.

A partnership of industry stakeholders and the WCB has produced a new BC Faller Training Standard that establishes uniform safe work practices and procedures to be used everywhere in the province by all forest production fallers.

Diagnosis and Treatment
The Workers’ Compensation Board’s diagnosis goes deeper. Examining years of accident and injury reports, we found that inadequate training is a leading contributor to the excessive injury and fatality rates experienced by fallers in BC. Clearly, corrective action was imperative, and re-tooling—re-thinking—to improve logging safety was needed. No small job, it took a partnership of industry stakeholders and the WCB four years to accomplish. What we produced was a two-part prescription that will treat the training problem and its harmful effects. Being implemented now, the treatment consists of a mandatory, province-wide faller training and certification program.

The remedy developed by the joint effort is a new BC Faller Training Standard that establishes uniform safe work practices and procedures to be used everywhere in the province by all forest production fallers. When fully operational, the program will give our province Canada’s most rigorous falling standards. Its system of training and certification will protect fallers in BC. The goal is to make this skilled but hazardous occupation safer and more professional for both experienced fallers and those just starting their careers. Part One of the program is underway now. It involves a “grandfathering” process to certify qualified fallers already on the job. Until the end of 2004, those having worked regularly as fallers for at least two years will receive certification after passing a written or oral test and a skills demonstration. The application fee is $150 until July 31, when it rises to $250. Information on how to apply for the grandfathering process can be obtained by downloading applications from www.worksafebc.com , phoning toll-free to the WCB 1-888-621-7233, local 3060 or contacting any WCB regional office.

Photo pg 43 - The goal of everyone in the industry is to have fallers go about their work safely—and to go home to their families injury-free at the end of the work day.

The Employer’s Stake
It’s important to emphasize that the issue of serious injury or death in the forests impacts owners as well as fallers. Employers have a direct legal obligation. The WCB Occupational Health and Safety Regulation prohibits them from allowing anyone to fall trees who isn’t qualified under standards acceptable to the WCB. Only the new certification and training program is acceptable. So employers have a stake in the grandfathering process and the overall success of the program. It’s the best way to be sure that the fallers they employ are qualified to harvest timber, a requirement as of July 2003 under Parts 26.21 and 26.22 of the Regulation. Recognizing the new reality, some employers are already paying all or part of their fallers’ certification fees and helping them get ready to become grandfathers, so to speak.

Others—possibly with more resources and certainly an eye on the future—go further. They make an investment that begins with the relatively short grandfathering process, but also promises permanent, in-house training expertise. The opportunity they see lies in the WCB’s expectation of broad industry participation in and eventual take-over of the program. This begins with evaluating experienced fallers’ tests and skills demonstrations against the standard, now done by trained board officers, and it goes on to include overseeing the certification of new fallers. To prepare industry personnel for those roles, the WCB is offering a 10-day Qualified Supervisor Trainer (QST) course for individuals like faller/bucker supervisors employed by licensees and contractors. Graduates can not only evaluate applicants for grandfathered certifications, but also oversee refreshers for those who may need remedial training, as well as train and evaluate fallers new to the industry—all under the new faller standard. The QST course can be made available in most regional centres for a fee of $1,000 per participant, including all instruction, materials and facility costs. More information is available from WCB Forestry Specialist Mike Nielsen at 1-888-621- 7233 Local 3060.

For Future Fallers
While the immediate need is grandfathering, we must also focus on future fallers to make this a safer occupation in the long term. This means shedding some of the industry’s recent past—the patchwork of faller training that uses inconsistent and questionable methodology. Starting in late 2004, that non-system will be replaced by the new BC Faller Training Standard. This is Part Two of the prescription devised in collaboration with forest industry stakeholders. For me, the most interesting and valuable input came from veteran fallers whose careers were completely injury-free. They helped us identify certain universal, core principles that apply to all safe falling—recognizing hazards, and then evaluating and controlling them. Those principles are the foundation of the comprehensive made-in-BC faller standard developed by a team of respected fallers from industry who shared their knowledge with WCB field officers and reviewed the final program. Sharing a passion for safety, they put a lot of thought and hundreds of hours of work into the project.

The standard sets out a practical program that revolves around a 530-page lesson plan based on what happens in the real world of logging. Supporting materials include 52 short, how-to videos shot in all weather conditions on different terrain from the Coast to the Interior. New fallers can count on 30 days of one-on-one training followed by an apprenticeship period of 180 days or less if they develop competency sooner. The training ends with an oral or written certification exam. Part of the process is instilling a greater sense of professionalism in an occupation that has always required high degrees of skill and knowledge. In that sense, the training echoes other joint industry efforts to improve safety in the woods— developing innovative falling practices, reviewing duties of faller/bucker supervisors and conducting regional FallSafe presentations.

Partnership Pays Off
Everyone involved has put a lot of effort and commitment into getting to this point, and the partnership is paying off. As it begins, with the first groups of fallers, the grandfathering process is already showing how much it’s needed. One man with more than 20 years of falling experience didn’t, so to speak, make the cut on the first try. In the skills demonstration, he walked in front of a standing cut-up tree, literally putting his life on the line. For years, dangerous work practices like that have maimed and killed fallers and their co-workers, and the new certification and training program is meant to reverse the trend. It will mean that bad habits aren’t passed on to people learning to be fallers, and that their training focuses on safe, effective work practices.

When the full program is in place next year, falling will be well on its way to being a safer occupation. Ultimately, we should see risks to individuals drop, injuries and fatalities decline, and lower compensation costs for a forest industry operating in a relentlessly competitive world market.

Don Dahr is manager of primary resources for the Workers’ Compensation Board of BC.

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