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A sawdusting of safety

By Amanda Silliker

Hearing conservation, industry-specific orientation needed for mills in N.B

Sawmills across New Brunswick experienced a rash of workplace fatalities in the early 2000s. To address this, WorkSafeNB joined forces with the New Brunswick Forest Products Association to put on a travelling roadshow explaining the need to re-instate the New Brunswick Forest Safety Association. The association had been established in 1963 but was dismantled in 1982 when the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission was born.

They needed 50 per cent plus one of the industry’s support, and once Maritime paper product conglomerate Irving got on board, the association was re-established.

But they needed someone to head up the new association who could get the “old school” industry to at least be open to learning about safe practices — and Barbara McFarlane was exactly who they were looking for.

“They were looking for somebody who could talk the talk, and health and safety in forestry wasn’t first and foremost on people’s minds, they wanted somebody who could more initially be able to talk to people and get in to visit places and be invited to meetings,” says McFarlane, who joined the association as executive director in January 2007.

McFarlane’s education in forest engineering, her experience doing field work in the industry for 10 years and her strong interpersonal skills helped kick-start the association. 

The goal of the New Brunswick Forest Safety Association is to reduce injuries and illnesses in the forest industry. All 40 sawmills across the province are members. So far, the association has succeeded in its mandate as the industry has not had a fatality since 2007.

Health and safety training is the most popular service offered by the association. Because it is industry funded, the training is offered at a reduced rate from what it would be on the open market, and includes courses such as fall arrest, confined space, chainsaw safety, lockout, hazard identification and mechanical logging. The association also develops curriculum for company-specific training.

Its train-the-trainer program is also popular. For example, McFarlane has been conducting safety training for Irving’s contractors at its spring safety orientation for the past several years. But recently, after participating in the association’s train-the-trainer program, Irving’s health and safety co-ordinators are conducting the training themselves.

“I was very proud of the evolution of it… My whole theory was if you want a strong safety message, it has to come from within. It will just be an added bonus coming from your health and safety co-ordinator.”

The association offers additional resources such as informal audit support, employee safety climate surveys and an online toolbox with various forms, videos and templates.  

Hearing conservation

The government of New Brunswick is looking at amending its hygiene regulations. As of right now, aside from outlining the need for protection when noise reaches so many decibels, the government does not have any hearing conservation guidelines.

McFarlane would like to see audiometric testing become a common best practice.

“I am really keen to get our members educated about that because, as you can imagine, a sawmill can be a very noisy place.”

One hurdle is educating the industry on the importance of catching hearing issues early.

“We want to get everyone on board and not waiting for the regulations to change, get them starting to do baseline testing and not panicking about ‘Well, we’re going to uncover claims; they don’t know they’re partially deaf so why tell them?’ You actually have that kind of fear. It’s all education,” she says.

It’s also about explaining to employers that a hearing conservation program can protect them because audiometric testing can show what damage was done from what type of noise. For example, a worker’s hearing loss may be from using his whipper snipper at home without earmuffs, not from his work.  


A couple of years ago, the association did a member survey and found 78 per cent of members were not doing any formal orientation or training for new workers — or if they were, they were not recording it.

“We want to get away from just throwing people into one of the most dangerous industrial environments out there,” she says.

McFarlane is hoping to develop a sawmill specific orientation kit. The orientation would be very video-centric and interactive, says McFarlane.

“Our sawmills are in the most rural parts of the province. Our workforce is aging, the education levels are lower, literacy levels are lower, whenever we talk about training and new programs, we have to keep that in mind.” 


The association offers its own Safety And Forestry Excellence (SAFE) certification. It was adapted from the BC Forest Safe program as well as the CSA Z1000 standard. So if a company passes this certification, it would be able to achieve Z1000, says McFarlane.

Participating companies are given two years to complete the program. In the

first six months they have to complete an internal audit to identify where the gaps lie. There are also two mandatory courses: one for upper management and the other for internal auditors.

“The one-day course for CEOs and managers is a background on health and safety and their responsibilities so they know it is actually their program. So many think ‘You are the health and safety manager, you fix it.’ (But it’s really) ‘No, you don’t understand, I am managing your program. You name goes on everything,’” says McFarlane.

The last step is an external audit conducted by the New Brunswick Forest Safety Association to see if the company has met all requirements for certification.

The best way to get buy-in from senior management for programs like this is to connect them back to the bottom line, says McFarlane.

“Everything with health and safety has to be brought back to efficiency,” she says. “You’re making two-by-fours. If you make one a day very carefully, guess what, we’re all going home. You’re not producing safety; you’re producing dimensional lumber. If you do that by not hurting anyone, everybody’s going to benefit.”

A big hurdle for the association is still trying to improve the culture of safety among the industry. McFarlane has seen it improving slowly over the past few years, with more companies calling the association for training, resources and assistance, but there is still a long way to go.

One statistic that stands out for McFarlane from their member survey is 98 per cent of respondents said they thought there would be another sawmill fatality, but not in their mill.

“So everybody thinks it’s going to happen, nobody thinks it’s going to happen at their mill, but it’s going to happen somewhere,” says McFarlane. “It was really ominous and I always tell people, ‘Ask yourself are you good or are you lucky?’ We can all be lucky for a while, but luck runs out.”

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