Report probes safety in B.C. forestry sector

British Columbia auditor general John Doyle painted a bleak picture of the condition of the province’s forestry workers when it comes to their safety, in a report released recently entitled, Preventing Fatalities and Serious Injuries in B.C. Forests: Progress Needed.

“The government still has to overcome significant challenges if it is to meet the goal it set in 2003 of radically decreasing deaths and serious injuries in the forest industry,” Doyle wrote in his report submitted to the B.C. Legislative Assembly.

Data from WorkSafeBC showed an average of 22 workers in the forestry sector were dying every year between 1997 and 2006, despite continued decline in the number of workers due to mechanization of many forestry works, the report said.

The auditor general commented that government’s involvement in the safety of forestry is “fragmented among several bodies” and that there isn’t a single ministry or agency that has the overall responsibility for ensuring improvements to forest worker safety. “Several public agencies whose mandates have responsibilities related to safety activities have no specific strategies for effectively contributing towards the goal since it was set in 2003,” Doyle said.

The auditor general’s probe began in 2006 when the province’s minister of Forests and Range called for an independent review of the safety issues faced by B.C. forestry workers, a view shared by the minister of Labour and Citizen Services, according to a statement from the office of the auditor general of B.C.

Earlier in 2003, the province’s premier established the Forest Safety Task Force in a bid to reduce incidents of deaths and injuries among forestry workers by 50 per cent. This goal was later revised to zero deaths and injuries, according to Doyle.

Four years later, that goal still has not been achieved, Doyle said. “Strong leadership and commitment is required now to guide, complement and support efforts taken by industry.”

The auditor general’s report also found that the province failed to step up inspections, infraction follow-ups and penalties when the goals to reduce fatalities and injuries were set for the forestry sector.

Incident reporting on fatalities and serious injuries is also another area found lacking by the auditor general’s report. Although “some reporting” is done, information sharing is not well-established, the report said. “We found that in-depth analyses of individual incidents are not well-publicized to support a wider public education program.”

The auditor general summarized his recommendations into 15 points outlined in the report, aimed at helping the government reach its of goal of reducing incidents of death and serious injury among forest workers.

Among the recommendations include: the designation of one ministry to lead in policy issuance such as regulatory change, closing jurisdictional gaps and assigning resources to meet government’s safety commitments; for government to consider the possibility of providing economic incentives beyond the worker’s compensation system to reward safe operators; more vigorous enforcement by WorkSafeBC of health and safety regulations; and mandatory safety planning in all aspects of forest operations should be imposed by the Ministry of Forests and Range.

Commenting on the report, the United Steelworkers (USW) Western Canada welcomed the findings and recommendations set forth in the auditor general’s report, saying it was a response to the organization’s Stop the Killing campaign launched in 2005.

“To his credit, the auditor general has exposed corporate and government policies, which have contributed to death and injury in the forest sector,” said Stephen Hunt, director for USW Western Canada.

Hunt cited the B.C. government’s deregulation of the forestry industry which, he said, resulted in the fragmentation of the industry and “downloading of responsibilities for safety onto the back of contractors and subcontractors, while allowing licensees to escape their legal responsibilities to workers.”

The deregulation created a “culture of desperation,” Hunt said, referring to the decision of the B.C. government in the early 2000 to break up the big forestry companies into smaller firms as part of its campaign to cut the red tape. “And much of the red tape was health and safety,” he said.

“The explosion of small contractors set off a low-bid race to the bottom, cutting corners on safety along the way.” Hunt said. “In our opinion, the first that suffered there was the health and safety and it led to the culture of desperation – people were desperate for work, people were desperate to put food on their table and educate their kids and pay for their houses, and they did things they would not normally do.”

That cost 43 forestry workers’ lives in 2005 alone, Hunt added.

Although the recommendations from the auditor general are a step in the right direction, Hunt said it is still up to the industry “to keep things moving.”

“There are many, many employers out there that care about their workers and those ones we hope will align with us and continue to push for safer workplace,” Hunt said. But, he added, for those that can’t operate a forestry business “without killing somebody or seriously injuring them, then maybe you shouldn’t be in the industry.”

The B.C. Ministry of Labour and Citizens and Ministry of Forests and Range have also welcomed the auditor general’s report, in a written response to the 15 recommendations. Among other things, the ministries agreed there is a need for “leadership and appropriate organization”, mechanisms for making safety a priority and better reporting of incidents of fatalities and serious injuries in the industry.