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COLUMN

Fight with WCB lays foundation for fallers' association 

By Jim Stirling

You can grumble. You can yell and scream and shake your head at the unfairness of it all. Or you can try and do something about it. Randall Shoop falls squarely into the latter category. Shoop is an independent professional faller and has been for more than 30 years. 

He works out of Hazelton in north-western British Columbia. And what galvanized him into action began in 2000 with a rate re-structure initiated by the Workers' Compensation Board. It tripled the rate independent fallers like him paid: "$8,000 a year per man out of pocket." And that assumes they didn't experience an accident. That was unconscionable enough-but there was another factor that stuck in Shoop's craw. 

It was the independents only who were taking the hit. Fallers working for large integrated companies were assessed a much lower rate. This despite the fact that at times the independents and company fallers were doing the same work. Also, adds Shoop, the rate discrepancy placed the independents at a huge competitive disadvantage when bidding work. 

The burden of higher costs increased pressure on the independents to fall more timber faster. And that, in turn, opens a Pandora's Box of safety issues and changing tree harvesting practices and conditions over which the independent fallers have no control. Safety isn't just a word, it's essential survival for a hand faller. Increased rates do nothing to make fallers more aware of the job's risks. 

Shoop says fallers see horrific accidents and suffer the loss of colleagues. But there's also been something insidious about the safety issue. Talk about it at your peril. Word gets out that you're a troublemaker if you complain about safety, making it difficult to get another job, he says. Safety measures can decrease production. And production is a means to counteract rising costs elsewhere and maintain a competitive edge. 

The WCB's rate re-structuring concept was well intended. The idea was to break down logging activities into more classifications so detailed data could be assembled from each for injury prevention programs and to make sure each sector pays the claim costs it accrues. But as Shoop says he discovered, the WCB's attitude seemed to be that there were no inherently dangerous jobs, just unsafe workers. And independent fallers were on top of that heap, he adds. 

Being persistent and consistent paid dividends in dealing with the WCB, which to its credit began appreciating the independent faller's dilemma.

That conclusion was drawn, he was also to discover, without the independent fallers themselves being consulted in any meaningful manner. But that, countered the WCB, was because there was no body or association representing their interests. But it took a while for all that to become clear as Shoop embarked on a two year odyssey to answer the question: Why are the WCB's insurance rates for independent fallers so high? "We had to look at it, they had to change it." 

Shoop spent thousands of hours on the telephone. He's got boxes of faxes and letters. He blitzed the media and attended council meetings. The two main challenges for Shoop and fellow Hazelton faller Mike McKibbin, were to canvass other independent fallers and establish a workable communication link with the WCB. Neither was easy initially but both were realized. 

Independent fallers are just that-independent-and difficult to corral into one place at one time. The men used union help and word of mouth to arrange 13 meetings for fallers in 15 days around BC. Shoop figures there's at least 1,500 independent fallers in the province. He discovered being persistent and consistent paid dividends in dealing with the WCB, which to its credit began appreciating the independent faller's dilemma. And their harsh working conditions. 

Fallers are acutely aware one error can cost them their life. It is the nature of the job that is the issue. Hand fallers are increasingly called upon to work in the steepest and toughest sites in the worst of weather. Helicopters are expensive and hand fallers are under pressure to have the wood down and ready for them when they fly. Forest Practices Code prescribed block layouts, blowdown areas and decadent timber stands are normal operating areas for fallers in areas inaccessible to mechanized harvesting equipment. 

The WCB made a ruling on the faller's rate issue last November. The board's panel of administrators have agreed to drop the independent faller's rate for 2002 to one in line with the integrated company fallers. 

The one year hiatus allows for more consultation and review of logging classifications before assessing a new base rate. The board also approved a three year transition so all logging classifications will share the same base rate by 2004. The ruling was greeted with enthusiasm by Shoop because the breathing space validates the independent fallers' concerns. 

He says the ruling couldn't and wouldn't have happened without developing a really good working relationship with the WCB, the unions and fallers. What has also emerged from the process is the foundation for a province-wide association for fallers and buckers. Shoop sees an association playing a critical role in improving the health and safety of its members. 

It would also create a permanent conduit for communication between the WCB and other agencies so fallers will have less chance of being left out of the loop when issues of importance to the profession are discussed. For Shoop, the WCB experience reinforces a credo: "If you take up a fight and it's right, you will win. If you don't, you didn't fight it right."

 

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