Home » Tree Planting and Safety: A Sad State

Tree Planting and Safety: A Sad State

 

spectrum resource group

In eight years working in Silviculture, I have been struck by lightning, been driven off loggings roads, almost collided with logging trucks at least three times, been put in compromising situations and felt my life or my well-being in danger countless times. Add to this the fact that I’ve known of a least six or seven deaths, several severe injuries(including someone who can no longer walk) and have witnessed numerous blatant health and safety violations.

Forestry in general is a boys club and a club of hard people with hard attitudes. Yet Silviculture is made up of a diverse grouping of locals, hipsters, hippies, university kids and international travellers. Why then do the hard attitudes regarding health and safety transcend the boundaries of Forestry into the collective psyche of Silviculture workers? I am going to argue that an unaccountability amongst workers, married to an unaccountability and selfishness amongst tree planting companies leads to a situation where our lives are needlessly put in danger.

“All it takes is one great supervisor to have a major impact on safety awareness.”

I worked for the same tree planting/forestry company for my first six years. They were/are one of the largest Silviculture companies in British Columbia. They sit on Provincial safety boards and have pioneered many of the safety accords that are currently in place meant to protect workers. Yet the juxtaposition between these facts and the reality on the ground is laughable. Foremen driving high, supervisors working people beyond the point of exhaustion for monetary gains, cooks threatening the health and physical safety of workers, untrained people using dangerous equipment, foremen being told to run trees alone at 11pm in the dark, etc. The problem, which will be illustrated in the next paragraph is one of power being exercised from the top down(ie: where the worker exercises no control over his or her own safety).

The Good(ish):

I once worked with a woman named Sarah. She was the company checker and she had no qualifications, no training and little experience in the bush. Our company had mandatory training for heavy equipment and the fact that she passed and was allowed to drive equipment was a shock to all. Long story short: while climbing a hill on a quad, Sarah reached the peak and instead of braking, hit the gas. She flew off a cliff, the quad rolled over her and snapped all the ligaments in her knee, crushed her kneecap and her head narrowly missed a large rock. This was complete and utter incompetence within a company who knew she had no place on that mountaintop. Why am I labelling this as good? Our response was perfect. Sarah was stabilized while two people drove to camp and returned with the level three first aid respondents. Sarah was c-spined, loaded into a truck and rushed 175 km to the nearest hospital. Everyone had a role and they knew what it was, even those with little or no training.

The Bad:

I honestly have too many negative stories to share. I will limit them to a paragraph. First of all, read my story about Thomas, the cook from hell. Thomas threatened workers with physical abuse, violated numerous healthy and safety codes and was never fired by my company. Next, read my story about being struck by lightning. The lightning was obviously out of everyone’s control. However we were called “pussies” by upper management for quitting our day early and our supervisor at the time did not believe we were struck. He thought we made it up to get out of work. This same supervisor also had our camp work a 17 hour day in 33 degree heat with no water supply. Lastly, I returned to work a small contract with this company two years ago. I was horrified when I learned that the supervisor was having his foremen leave camp at 9pm to quad in trees alone! My foreman was out at 10pm alone on a rainy night and flipped his quad over up a nearly vertical embankment! How could any of this occur if it were not for a complete and utter lack of safety culture amongst ourselves or the fear of repercussions?

As dire as these examples may seem, it isn’t hopeless. In fact all it takes is one great supervisor to have a major impact on safety awareness. For my first four years in the industry, I worked under a particular supervisor. This man was incredible given the circumstances described above and although the issues I have brought up existed under his supervision, his focus on particular aspects of safety have had lasting effects. Every two weeks a meeting would be held with the entire camp where the issue of driver safety would be pummelled into our heads.

“We did not speak up because we were comfortable.”

spectrum resource group

When Christine Benoit-Belisle was killed in a car crash in 2008 a few kilometres from our camp, a meeting was held that night and the situation discussed at length. Those events remained in our consciousness and four years later, in another part of the province and with a different company, those who were touched by that supervisor’s message have continued to stand up for road safety. This includes calling people out when the rules are broken. This is the importance of empowerment from the bottom up.

I do not want to argue in this piece that the solution to poor health and safety attitudes is government legislation. The reality inherent to this industry is that it can be dangerous. There is little to remove the danger inherent while working in the Canadian wilderness. Legislation only makes accomplishing work tasks more difficult and it results in companies and workers bending the rules. Likewise, the emphasis should not be placed solely on Silviculture companies. As Silviculture workers, we need to hold ourselves accountable and we need to hold the companies we work for accountable.

Conclusion:

The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work is our best friend. But workers are afraid of being fired and no one is ever held accountable. Silviculture workers need to talk about these issues amongst themselves freely and then stand together. My negative stories all took place within one company and a company who outwardly prides itself in its culture of safety. However this is an industry-wide problem. We did not speak up because we were comfortable and because we did not know any better. We did not want to go to a new company and lose our friends and we did not know that another world existed outside of ours. It took a strong voice that made us realize that we had been silent for so many years and had put our lives at risk for no justifiable reason. When money, deadlines or incompetency result in our being placed in compromising situations, we need to recognize these things and stand up for ourselves. Safety should ideally begin with good leadership but should then be spread from the bottom up. Don’t expect your company or the government to have your best interests at hand. Instead you need to learn, adapt and speak up. This isn’t about blaming the victim, this is about workers standing up to shady and dangerous practices amongst ourselves and the companies we work for.

Do you have a story about safety and tree planting? Share it in the comments below!

9 comments

  1. Josie W says:

    Hey Jer! While I can see where you are coming from regarding safety in the past, I would argue that things have changed significantly in recent years- specifically with the big bad company you used to work for. The culture of safety doesn’t just appear, but changes over time, and looking back over my 9 years in the industry, I can say that major progress has been made and cowboy attitudes are being phased out.

    For example- 2007-letting anyone with a license drive a truck (and a near head-on collision with a logging truck while a rookie drives a F-350 for the first time into town) vs 2014- all drivers are drug tested, have to have a clean abstract, take 2 days of driver training (most of which is now one-on-one and in the truck, bi-shiftly drivers meetings, and all trucks are monitored for speed via gps systems by the shop and supervisor- if you speed on a logging road, you are in trouble… If you do it twice, suspended.

    But you are right about supervision. Safety ultimately comes down to the attitudes and actions of the supervisor and foremen in the field. Unfortunately there are still a lot of cowboys calling people pussies out there and intimidating them into doing work that they are uncomfortable with or even untrained to do. As a supervisor myself though, safety is ACTUALLY my first priority… I worry and think about it constantly, and am lucky to have a great staff of foremen and checkers who believe in my mantra- that these are other people’s kids and most are city kids with no experience with logging roads/wildlife/bush living- that questions, concerns, and hesitations are a GOOD thing- and we encourage planters to communicate their questions and anxieties to us… and they actually do. We promote a supportive atmosphere in camp rather than a tough or money-oriented one- and ultimately planters know that they can talk to me. This might make us the hippie camp, but we had a great safety record this year and it was still an economically fruitful season. All of the foremen were made to implement a stretching program- we had zero tendonitis (the two planters who developed early signs were made to do modified work duties (even though they wanted to plant) and were back to work in 3 days with no further symptoms in the season). I also held camp meetings every shift to improve communication and before each of our 3 camp moves did a “stop/start/continue” exercise where planters were handed sheets of paper that had those words on it and they all wrote something under each category (like stop: driving excursion in dust, start: wiping tables better, continue: great food). And it was anonymous- planters put their papers in a box and all of the suggestions were considered and changes were made where appropriate.

    Another big part of safety is for management to implement safety on the ground. E.g. One of my foremen pulled his crew off of a block because the road had become impassible and it was going to be a 4km walk to the back on a terrible road. He realized that because of our distance from town and the road conditions, that if there was a medical emergency at the back of the block, it would be impossible to evac someone… so they turned back half way in. I was radioed and I called my boss and he brought out appropriate machinery to shuttle the crew, injured people if necessary, and trees in/out that night for the next morning. I think that going back even a couple of years (or maybe to other companies/camps) that this situation would have taken on the power through, cowboy up, attitude- potential safety issues may not have even been considered. But we are encouraging foremen to think about safety on the ground and how incidents could theoretically play out as conditions change, etc. We still want to make lots of money out there, but that isn’t as important as delivering those kids back to their parents safely at the end of the season.

    So to end this lengthy response, I don’t think that the silviculture industry (or all companies, or even all camps within a single company) can be painted with the same brush. While there are still some cowboys out there, I think that safety really comes down to the management of each camp, understanding and implementing safety on the ground, and making sure that planters know that their concerns are valid and giving them the opportunity for their voices to be heard- anonymously if necessary. I think that things are looking up in the development of the silvicultural safety culture and perhaps that it’s a changing and constantly improving state.

  2. Josie. W says:

    “Safety should ideally begin with good leadership but should then be spread from the bottom up. Don’t expect your company or the government to have your best interests at hand. Instead you need to learn, adapt and speak up. This isn’t about blaming the victim, this is about workers standing up to shady and dangerous practices amongst ourselves and the companies we work for.” – Agreed, that’s good stuff there! And camps/leaders should ensure that people are comfortable speaking up.

  3. William says:

    Firstly – fantastic post. I’m glad that you brought this to light because as much as big companies in B.C. purport to be concerned with the safety of their workers (and in my experience, this is largely accurate), things really start/proceed/finish with management. A foreman/woman may be vehemently against proceeding in a certain direction (your example of running trees in the dark rings particularly true for me) but prodding from an inexperienced/idiotic/stressed out supervisor or coworker might lead them to make decisions they aren’t necessarily comfortable making. It is hugely important to stand up for yourself, use your best judgement, and if your back really ends up against the wall, get in touch with the owner.

    I had a supervisor this past season who was vastly under qualified, over-stressed, and generally out of touch with what rests within the realm of human capability. When he asked me to do something that was both outside of the scope of my job, and more importantly, extremely unsafe, I simply refused. We had a fairly extensive yelling match and I was demoted to planting for the final few shifts of the season, but I was content with the fact I held my ground. By the time I explained to the owner what I was asked to do/how things transpired, he was absolutely floored and it is safe to say that individual will never work for him again. Score one for the good guys.

    Stay safe and all the best.

  4. Elliott says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    It was a joy to read your post. I’ve only been planting for two seasons, but have seen this level of disregard for safety with some of the companies that worked in a nearby area. I was lucky yi work with a company that had pretty good safety (although there will always be dangers, I think they did a really good job at mitigating risks). The one area I saw that will be difficult to change is the culture of ‘not enough’. There is such a rush to put the trees in the ground and people are often pushed into dangerous situations to get this done. Luckily, with my company, no one was pushed to run trees by themselves in the middle of the night, however I know the company working the same stretch near Prince George definitely were doing solo runs into the night. Anyways, I love your blog, you’re a great writer and bring up some interesting points about the industry. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *