By Barbara Coyner
Steady log supply, innovative equipment upgrades, fluctuating lumber markets, personnel issues… sawmills have constant challenges. Now COVID 19 has been added to the list.
For mill operators, safety has long been important when it comes to protecting the workforce. A pandemic and its mysterious spread are a whole new ballgame.
Creating Space and Masks
“Because of social distancing here, we have closed the office to anyone outside the office employees and supervisors from the mill site,” says Heidi Davis, logger payroll administrator at Bennett Lumber Products (BLP), based in Princeton, Idaho. Davis immediately took to her sewing machine to sew dozens of masks for all employees as part of the company’s proactive response to the spreading virus.
“When truck drivers come on the plant, they call the office for directions. Once they are at the scales, they have a window that they go to at the scale shack and get their information through the window. We have masks available if they choose to wear them. As for those out in the mill, we have discouraged large gatherings and congregating, being aware of their arrangements in the lunch rooms, etc. Just common sense stuff mostly.”
For Brett Bennett, BLP vice president, and Teresa Quimby, director of human resources, reaction to the news of the virus’s potential was immediate. Both saw the need to be aggressive, especially in light of the massive COVID outbreak in the South Dakota meatpacking plant.
Bennett’s daughter, Brianna, office manager and fourth generation in the Bennett lumber mill history, also sounded the alarm. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I saw my friends in larger cities and on social media, and they were relating just how serious things could become,” she says. “We care about our employees here, and we had to have a plan.”
Finding a Role Model
What makes the Bennett story somewhat unique is that the company has two mills in two different states, Idaho and Washington, and initially, each state was addressing the pandemic differently. The sawmills at both Princeton and at Clarkston, Washington, were deemed essential industries, so both kept operating. But the Clarkston plant was under the dictates of Governor Jay Inslee, who took a rigid stance after the virus first turned up in the Seattle area. The threat of a complete lockdown and extensive testing loomed large, and tracing was part of the strategy.
Meanwhile, in Idaho, Governor Brad Little kept an ear to national trends and also watched for the number of cases and deaths, dictating policy a bit more on the fly. In time, Idaho was put under lockdown, with many businesses ordered to close, while mills continued to operate as essential industries.
One sidelight was that the run on toilet paper gave the timber industry a whole new importance. Indeed, cartoons began to picture logging trucks as hauling “toilet paper in the raw.” As a major pulp mill manufacturing toilet paper, Clearwater Paper at Lewiston, Idaho, became a role model for how to deal with pandemic threats among the workforce.
“We reached out to Clearwater Paper to see what they were doing,” says Brett, noting that other mills were likewise comparing notes and sharing information and ideas. “At Clearwater Paper, they screened everyone who came into the plant. They sanitized and decontaminated work spaces. They had a very aggressive policy on people entering the mill.”
Brianna adds that the pulp mill employees were tested sometimes, and travel was discouraged as a way to limit the spread of the virus. If employees had any symptoms at all, they were sent home and kept out of the plant. According to Teresa Quimby, OSHA continues to be on the lookout for cases in mills and other industries, which are recordable and reportable, requiring constant monitoring and vigilance at the mills. Clearwater Paper’s policies became the role model for area industries.
“Idaho was more relaxed in its restrictions, giving us room to do what we needed to do,” says Quimby, who also volunteers as a community EMT. “We had to follow Centers for Disease Control and Health Department guidelines, and we had constant updates, sometimes hour by hour. Eventually we got down to memos every other day.”
Because Idaho didn’t have as much testing available at the start, actual numbers were hard to come by, but it appeared cases were more limited, especially in the northern part of the state. The workforce at the Clarkston plant was definitely more vulnerable, in part because the area is more populous. The Inslee approach was also much more rigid in its desire to trace cases. Brett anticipated increased danger and potential cases at Clarkston, so employees were told to stay home if they had even mild symptoms. If a spouse worked in a medical facility and had higher exposure to risk, the employee was watched more carefully. Initially, the higher incidence of absenteeism at Clarkston did lead to a production slowdown at times, according to Brett.
Challenges Through the Years
For the 80-year-old Bennett Lumber Products enterprise, COVID is just another obstacle requiring decisive and innovative leadership. Founder Guy Bennett began the company at Clarkston, arriving in town with mere pocket change in hand, stepping in to mill ammo boxes for the war. In time, son Frank learned the ropes of lumber production and eventually purchased the sawmill in Princeton in the 1970s. He steered the family-owned business carefully through the spotted owl era, with son Brett in time coming aboard. Now Brett’s two adult children, Brianna and Bryson, have joined the team. Bryson has spent time in various parts of the mill while attending college, and Brianna is using her business degree in office management duties.
Throughout the chapters, the two-mill company has assessed necessary upgrades to make its sawmills more efficient. A mill at Elk City, Idaho, was shuttered during the spotted owl challenges, and the company deftly managed its 60,000-acre land holdings to squeak through the timber crisis as the Forest Service stopped offering sales. Now Brett is back to lobbying for more small timber sales through the Small Business Administration.
“There are [fewer] mills now,” says Brett. “But there’s lots of timber out there and finally some movement in the Forest Service. There are too many contractors right now, so we have to find some balance. We’ve been fighting in D.C. because the Forest Service had pressure from big business to eliminate SBA sales as the agency went away from basic timber sales to stewardship and Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) sales. We had to fight to have them counted in the trigger for the SBA sale program, or there wouldn’t be any SBA program. But the SBA sales are important to smaller mills like us.”
Producing around 160 million board feet of lumber annually, Bennett Lumber put in a USNR scanning and control system within the last couple of years, adding it to the gang saw. The company also replaced the board edger with a new USNR system. The sophisticated optimization equipment allows employees to download Western Wood Products grading rules, and with pricing structures in place, the board edger can analyze each board for best value. Production has shot up.
With both the Princeton and Clarkston mills running white fir, ponderosa pine, and fir/larch, equipment upgrades have allowed the company to manufacture moulding grade for window and door manufacturers. With optimization, production is more flexible and nimble to market demands. The introduction of Imperial Cedar to the lineup years ago allowed the company to cater more to customers who utilize high-end cedar boards.
Always on the hunt for more efficiency, the Bennett team is launching into further upgrades at the planer mill. “We keep updating our technology here,” Brett said, noting that the goal is always to get maximum benefit from each log.
With COVID dictating new employee policies nationwide, Bennett Lumber Products is adding its own rules on how to handle safety in an industrial setting. Actual cases of the virus have not surfaced at either mill, but the threat has been taken seriously during the initial outbreak and any possible resurgence of the pandemic.
“We haven’t seen that the virus has really slowed production,” says Brett. “But we always have to be aware about what we would do if a real case does come along.”
Alissa Eckert, MSMI;
Dan Higgins, MAMS
On the Cover
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