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).
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.
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.”
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.
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!