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 forestrysector were dying every year between 1997 and 2006, despite continueddecline in the number of workers due to mechanization of many forestryworks, the report said.
The auditor general commented thatgovernment’s involvement in the safety of forestry is “fragmented amongseveral bodies” and that there isn’t a single ministry or agency thathas the overall responsibility for ensuring improvements to forestworker safety.“Several public agencies whose mandates have responsibilities relatedto safety activities have no specific strategies for effectivelycontributing towards the goal since it was set in 2003,” Doyle said.
The auditor general’s probe began in 2006 when the province’s ministerof Forests and Range called for an independent review of the safetyissues faced by B.C. forestry workers, a view shared by the minister ofLabour and Citizen Services, according to a statement from the officeof the auditor general of B.C.
Earlier in 2003, the province’s premier established the Forest SafetyTask Force in a bid to reduce incidents of deaths and injuries amongforestry workers by 50 per cent. This goal was later revised to zerodeaths 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, complementand support efforts taken by industry.”
The auditor general’s report also found that the province failed tostep up inspections, infraction follow-ups and penalties when the goalsto reduce fatalities and injuries were set for the forestry sector.
Incident reporting on fatalities and serious injuries is also anotherarea found lacking by the auditor general’s report. Although “somereporting” is done, information sharing is not well-established, thereport said. “We found that in-depth analyses of individual incidentsare not well-publicized to support a wider public education program.”
The auditor general summarized his recommendations into 15 pointsoutlined in the report, aimed at helping the government reach its ofgoal of reducing incidents of death and serious injury among forestworkers.
Among the recommendations include: the designation of one ministry tolead in policy issuance such as regulatory change, closingjurisdictional gaps and assigning resources to meet government’s safetycommitments; for government to consider the possibility of providingeconomic incentives beyond the worker’s compensation system to rewardsafe operators; more vigorous enforcement by WorkSafeBC of health andsafety regulations; and mandatory safety planning in all aspects offorest operations should be imposed by the Ministry of Forests andRange.
Commenting on the report, the United Steelworkers (USW) Western Canadawelcomed the findings and recommendations set forth in the auditorgeneral’s report, saying it was a response to the organization’s Stopthe Killing campaign launched in 2005.
“To his credit, the auditor general has exposed corporate andgovernment policies, which have contributed to death and injury in theforest sector,” said Stephen Hunt, director for USW Western Canada.
Hunt cited the B.C. government’s deregulation of the forestry industrywhich, he said, resulted in the fragmentation of the industry and“downloading of responsibilities for safety onto the back ofcontractors and subcontractors, while allowing licensees to escapetheir 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 tobreak up the big forestry companies into smaller firms as part of itscampaign to cut the red tape. “And much of the red tape was health andsafety,” he said.
“The explosion of small contractors set off a low-bid race to thebottom, cutting corners on safety along the way.” Hunt said. “In ouropinion, the first that suffered there was the health and safety and itled to the culture of desperation – people were desperate for work,people were desperate to put food on their table and educate their kidsand pay for their houses, and they did things they would not normallydo.”
That cost 43 forestry workers’ lives in 2005 alone, Hunt added.
Although the recommendations from the auditor general are a step in theright direction, Hunt said it is still up to the industry “to keepthings moving.”
“There are many, many employers out there that care about their workersand those ones we hope will align with us and continue to push forsafer workplace,” Hunt said. But, he added, for those that can’toperate a forestry business “without killing somebody or seriouslyinjuring them, then maybe you shouldn’t be in the industry.”
The B.C. Ministry of Labour and Citizens and Ministry of Forests andRange have also welcomed the auditor general’s report, in a writtenresponse to the 15 recommendations. Among other things, the ministriesagreed there is a need for “leadership and appropriate organization”,mechanisms for making safety a priority and better reporting ofincidents of fatalities and serious injuries in the industry.