Securing Safer SawmillsSecuring Safer Sawmills

Forest industry veteran—and safety advocate—Kerry Douglas has seen safety become a higher priority over the course of his 48-year career, with more focus on mill safety, especially in areas like dust containment.

By Jim Stirling

Kerry Douglas anticipates British Columbia’s largest forest companies will continue their leadership role in improving worker safety programs in the province’s sawmills during the next five to 10 years.

The course being followed is one of accident prevention by design. Sawmills can be safer places to work in when the potential hazards are fully understood and safeguarding systems are in place to mitigate the risks. Sawmilling equipment can also be designed or modified to make it safer and reduce the frequency and severity of accidents.

Douglas’ opinions carry the weight of experience. He recently retired from his position as manager-safety for West Fraser Mills Ltd., a large North American forest company based in the B.C. Interior city of Quesnel. His retirement marked the end of  a 48-year career in the forest industries of B.C. and Alberta, with much of it devoted to helping make sawmills and other wood processing plants safer and better places in which to work.

In 2017, Douglas was awarded the Cary White Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award for commitment to safety excellence from the BC Forest Safety Council. Interestingly, Douglas had worked with White during one stage of his career.

Worker safety is receiving a much higher and more consistent focus at the end of Douglas’ career than it did at its beginning. “There were no real industry standards then,” recalled Douglas.

That was around the time he started working weekends and school holidays in the sawmill and planer at the same Rayonier mill in New Westminster, B.C. where his dad, Wally, worked. “Safe work procedures were very much learned from whom you worked with.”

Securing Safer SawmillsLifetime safety award recipient, Kerry Douglas (centre), of West Fraser Mills Ltd., with BC Forest Safety Council CEO Rob Moonen (left) and former BC Forest Safety Council Chair, Ken Higginbotham.

The mentoring systems by more experienced people worked well to a point. But bad safety habits or an under-appreciation of the risks could inadvertently be passed on to the newcomers.

Looking back on a career, it’s often easier to identify the more significant defining moves or experiences that influenced it. “One of the things I really wanted to do was become a qualified pilot,” said Douglas He realized that ambition by earning his fixed wing licence in 1975. He added a helicopter endorsement the following year. Safety in all its manifestations is emphasized and hammered home during the learning to fly process and in every subsequent flight taken.

A second such seminal period began during Douglas’ tenure with Canfor Corp., in the late 1970s. He moved from being a buyer for the company in Vancouver to a similar role in Grande Prairie, Alberta. And later, while there, he applied for and was appointed to a maintenance supervisor position at Canfor’s Hines Creek sawmill complex. He spent about four years there, gaining an invaluable appreciation of safety issues from that perspective in the process.

The interest in and dedication to workplace safety in the forest industry was further augmented by a career with WorkSafeBC. It included a 17-year stint as a safety officer in Prince George. He moved on to join West Fraser in 2004.

Douglas reckons safety programs in sawmills were taking on a more unified and organized format by the mid-1970s. In-house safety committees in sawmills became more focused. “People had to realize sawmills are primary manufacturing centres containing a lot of inherent hazards where one simple error can have pretty devastating results,” said Douglas.

The growth and sophistication of sawmills and the concentration of the forest industry began driving the need for the development of more safety processes, he continued. “That evolution requires the creation of systems to manage safety programs.”

The maturation of B.C.’s forest industry toward safety issues in its plants advanced significantly in 2009 with the creation of the Manufacturers’ Advisory Group (MAG). It was a group of industry executives and safety specialists who met on an ad hoc basis to share best safety practices. The co-operation about safety within MAG really opened up the CEO group to working together and viewing each other not just as marketplace competitors, he explained.

The existence of the MAG was a key reason the forest industry could react quickly and positively to the two sawmill explosions and fires in 2012 that killed and injured forest workers. Investigations into the devastating incidents indicated accumulations of sawdust were critical factors in the explosions and fires.

Securing Safer SawmillsThe MAG developed benchmark standards to assist all wood processing plants to institute and maintain wood dust control programs. The co-operative from-the-top down MAG approach has since been adapted to improve worker safety in other facets of the forest industry.

“It’s really helped us dealing with our contractor groups, too, and we’re seeing a lot of benefits,” Douglas reported. Contractors are non-company employees who come on sawmill property to perform various tasks. They could be crane operators, mechanical or electrical contractor representatives or equipment owner-operators. “Now we’re dealing with a co-ordinated safety entity from the CEOs on down.”

The sawdust containment issue in wood processing plants brought with it a side benefit. “Mills are now much cleaner, brighter and more inviting places to work,” observed Douglas. The fact doesn’t hurt when it comes to recruitment.

The sawmill sector, like most of its industrial counterparts, is struggling to attract and retain new workers to replace an ageing work force. The traditional views of sawmills and types of work available within them are obsolete. Sawmills now are highly sophisticated places requiring a technically literate work force. Each machine centre and transfer system can be observed on a video screen while computers generate reams of detailed real time information about what’s happening within each function. Young hires understand the technology world. “But the challenge is new hires don’t readily recognize hazards or understand the risks.”

The machine centres in each sawmill or plant differs to best deal with the fibre types passing through them and the end products being manufactured. Douglas said there were 44 canters working within West Fraser’s mills in Canada and the U.S. They are similar in function, but different in execution. They have large and small heads and layers of cutting patterns. It’s a similar situation with other equipment like board edgers, stackers and planers. “They all require safety systems in place to reduce risk,” said Douglas. Safeguarding systems require worker buy-in. “Our employees are incredibly good,”

Douglas said he’s looking forward to the next chapter in his life and his future calendar was looking full. “I’m leaving West Fraser with many fond memories and an appreciation for the support for safety initiatives from the CEO group.”


Logging and Sawmilling Journal
September 2018

On the Cover:
A new Sennebogen 830 M-T at the Cameron River Logistics operation in northern B.C. moves 16-foot CTL logs from truck to rail for the Dunkley sawmill. Watch for the next issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal, and a feature story on how a Sennebogen 830 M-T log handler’s stacking ability has boosted yard capacity for Saskatchewan’s Edgewood Forest Products (Photo courtesy of Sennebogen).

Securing safer sawmills
Forest industry veteran—and safety advocate—Kerry Douglas has seen safety become a higher priority over the course of his 48-year career, with more focus on mill safety, especially in areas like dust containment.

B.C.’s Conifex Timber goes south…
B.C.-based Conifex Timber is doubling its production capacity with major sawmill investments in the U.S. South—including a significant upgrade to its El Dorado mill.

Capital investment delivers production boost
Ontario sawmiller Lavern Heideman & Sons has invested $17 million in its operations, and it has paid off big time, with an expected production boost of 60 per cent.

Idaho mill gets high tech makeover
The Idaho sawmill of Woodgrain Millwork is definitely on the upswing, thanks to a high tech makeover with equipment from suppliers, including HewSaw and Bosch Rexroth.

Going full tilt…
Tilt Contracting’s Russ Parsons has grown his operation, thanks to a strong focus on having logging equipment that delivers on B.C.’s steep slopes—and counts himself fortunate for having a solid crew, both at work and on the home front.

Upping veneer volume
Family-owned ATCO Wood Products has been able to double its production of veneer products over the last five years, with a series of smaller equipment upgrades and changes—and a team approach at the company.

Sawmilling is sometimes like a box of chocolates…
Operating a small sawmill for Saskatchewan’s Vernon Heatwole can be like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, in that he never knows what kind of unusual lumber order the next phone call will bring.

Keeping their options open—even with logging equipment
Maintaining their independence and keeping their options open—including being open to buying and selling equipment at any time—has paid off for veteran logging operation D & L Rehn Contracting.

Mountains of wood residue
A hog fuel working group that had sought workable solutions to the problems presented by the growing volumes of wood residues on the B.C. Coast has found there are no easy solutions to dealing with these mini-mountains of residual wood.

Saskatchewan sawmiller Dean Christiansen has taken a leap forward in equipment with an upgrade to a Wood-Mizer LT70 electric band sawmill, which has allowed him to double his production potential.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.

The Last Word


Tech Update: Yarders

Supplier Newsline

For all the latest industry news, subscribe to our twice monthly newsletter!


* indicates required