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19. Improving occupational safety and health: the International Labour Organization’s contribution - Peter Blombäck*

* Forestry and Wood Industries Unit, International Labour Organization, 4, route des Morillons, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland, Tel: +41.22.799.6111, Fax: +41.22.798.8685


This paper discusses prevailing social and labour problems in the forestry sector and describes how these hinder the development of a skilled and motivated workforce, which is a precondition for the effective application of reduced impact logging (RIL) techniques.

The paper gives a brief overview on how social and labour aspects have been addressed in the development of national/international certification, guidelines and codes of forest practice.

To provide guidance on effective ways of preventing occupational accidents and diseases, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published a Code of practice on safety and health in forest work in September 1998. This paper presents the Code, its objectives, contents and follow-up work to promote its use. It also describes other activities the ILO has undertaken to improve safety and health in the forestry sector.

With regard to safety and health, the paper concludes by identifying knowledge gaps and constraints to implementing RIL, and suggests essential occupational safety and health (OSH) criteria for sustainable forest management that should be taken into account to advance the successful and effective application of RIL.


Most forestry is still characterized by a difficult working environment, heavy physical efforts and high accident risk. In developing countries in particular, this often results in a vicious circle of low productivity, poor wages and an unstable workforce. To secure the future of forestry, human resources as well as forest resources must be managed in a sustainable manner.

Accidents and health problems

Forestry work continues to be one of the most hazardous occupations worldwide. So why does the problem not gain the recognition it deserves? One reason might be that forest workers operate in small groups and isolated places, frequently changing locations. Compared with mining disasters where several workers may be killed at the same time, accidents in forestry remain largely unnoticed and hardly ever make the news. Still, the statistics give reason to worry.

Statistics from the USA for 1998 and 1999 illustrate that forest workers employed in harvesting had the highest fatality rate (Figure 1). The high fatality rates in the USA are still much lower than in other countries, particularly in the tropics (Figure 2). In the absence of safety regulations and training, accident rates tend to be several times higher than in industrialized countries whether work is performed manually or with machines.

Figure 1. Fatal occupational injuries by selected occupation, USA, 1998-1999 (U.S. Department of Labor, 1994-95, 1998-99)

Figure 2. Fatality rates in forestry work for selected countries

The hot spot for serious accidents is forest harvesting, which tends to account for 70 percent or more of total accidents, a share usually far in excess of that of total productive working hours. Figure 3 shows the distribution among harvesting activities in Malaysia (Cheu Kuok Tuh, 1990).

Chainsaw operators are by far the most accident-prone group. In most cases of serious or fatal accidents, the worker is injured by falling trees, branches and logs. Accidents usually occur during felling and high-risk operations such as bringing down hung-ups or taking care of windthrows. In tropical forests, log transport operations also account for a major share of accidents. The introduction of RIL techniques (e.g. cable logging) might also introduce a new set of hazards, which have to be considered when these methods are implemented.

Figure 3. Distribution of logging fatalities among jobs in Malaysia (Sarawak), 1989

Behind the accident statistics lies much human suffering, all the more so since the many injuries tend to be difficult to treat and heal. For example, cuts by chainsaws often tear tissue, making surgical repair difficult or impossible. The risk of an accident with dramatic consequences is aggravated when, as is often the case in forestry, it occurs in an isolated place, far from a properly equipped medical centre. Accidents also affect the victim’s family, especially in developing countries where forest workers and their families often live under poor conditions with no alternative sources of income.

Forest work is also characterized by serious health problems related to excessive physical workloads, noise, vibration, repetitive strain injuries and stress among machine operators to name only the most significant (ILO, 1991). In fact, most forest workers do not reach normal pension age.

Another characteristic of forest work is that exposure to accidents not only varies with the job and the equipment used (e.g. operating a chainsaw versus a harvester); exposure also depends on the employment status of the workers. Farmers, the self-employed, contractors and beginners are much more at risk than experienced workers, permanently employed by larger enterprises (FAO/ECE/ILO, 1997).

In most developing countries, reliable information about occupational accidents and ailments at enterprise and national levels is often unavailable or incomplete. Forest accident statistics are needed for the industry and the workers to accept the seriousness of the situation, to understand the magnitude of the hazards and to react accordingly. Effectively reported and analysed they can be invaluable information for drawing up and monitoring accident prevention measures. The ILO guidelines on ergonomic study in forestry (Apud et al., 1989) provide valuable advice on developing an accident reporting system.

Cost of accidents

Forest worker safety and ergonomics have long been a low priority in most countries, whether industrialized or developing. Detailed cost-benefit analyses of the impact of improved working conditions are still lacking even though the sector is among the most accident-prone. The importance of costs associated with accidents has not been addressed adequately. One reason might be that managers often do not know the true cost of accidents. Typical costs of accidents include:

Many costs, especially the indirect ones, are frequently not obvious to managers and not always easy to assess. Direct costs such as compensation, medical treatment and lost wages often constitute only a minor portion of the total cost involved. Indirect costs might be several times higher. In addition, indirect costs are often uninsured costs and therefore not reimbursable. If all costs to the employer and employee are taken into consideration, what will the bill for negligence of safety requirements amount to? The following case from Malaysia shows two examples of relationships between indirect and direct costs.

Table 1. Accident costs in tropical wood harvesting: two examples (Manikam, 1985)

Accident 1

Malayian ringgit

Accident 2

Malaysian ringgit

Direct costs

Direct costs:


14 000


14 400


1 020


4 150


4 000


3 000


19 420


21 550

Indirect costs

Indirect cost:

Transport and repair of tractor and replacement of parts

14 440

Loss of production (3 days, 365 workers, 1.54 m3/man/day, loss of profit $50/m3)

84 250

Downtime damaged tractor (5 months)

23 067


Downtime other tractors in the area (2 wks)

29 860

Downtime for all other machines (2 days)

37 739

Downtime (2 wks) for tractor in logging block

4 175

Wages for all workers in logging (2 days)

2 046

Relief fund (2 days)



111 627


84 250

Grand total

131 047

Grand total

105 800

Ratio of direct to indirect cost


Ratio of direct to indirect costs


US$1 = M$ 2.60

In countries where accident insurance plans are in place, premiums increase as compensation volumes rise. In some industrialized countries, worker compensation fees have become one of the largest cost factors, seriously affecting the economic viability of the logging business. In the southeast of the USA and Oregon, workers’ compensation premium payments average 40 percent of payroll expenses.

In view of these figures, it is evident that safety is an investment from which workers and companies can gain. A few serious accidents can destroy profits and the firm’s competitiveness for years through insurance rating practices (Garland, 1989).

Contract work

The share of forest workers directly employed by the forest owner or industry has been declining even in those countries where direct employment used to be the rule. The increasing reliance on contractors and self-employed people often means that the forestry sector has been moving backwards in terms of skill levels, safety and health, working conditions and quality. Contractors are usually hired only for a specific and relatively short-duration job. They have to change work sites frequently, often long distances apart. The shift to contractual arrangements also means that large companies transfer to the contractor labour force problems including safety and health matters, workers’ compensation, regulatory responsibilities, unemployment insurance, fringe benefits and training. Because of rapid new development, measures to ensure that adequate standards are maintained often lag behind (ILO, 1997b).

In many developing countries, there is a considerable influx of unprofessional ‘fortune seekers’ to the trade. These businesses are often unproductive and staffed by an unskilled and underpaid workforce. However, increasingly, voluntary or mandatory registration systems for contractors are being established (for example in South Africa and the UK), making safety and skill certification a prerequisite for registration.

Living conditions

In general, forestry operations take place far from urban centres, and workers must travel long distances every day or remain for several days or weeks in camps near the workplace. In industrialized countries this situation is less common as most workers are able to commute daily between home and workplace. Where camp standards are low, labour turnover can be expected to be high.

The energy content of food is important because most harvesting, handling and forest protection activities demand great physical exertion. Studies in Chile have found a direct relationship between food intake and productivity (Apud, 1995; cited in Johansson and Strehlke, 1996). Insufficient food supplies resulted in short working days and low productivity.

In hot working environments it is equally important to ensure supply of drinking water of adequate quality. For heavy jobs, such as chainsaw work, a worker needs approximately one litre per hour (Apud, 1995). Dehydration drastically reduces working capacity and the ability to concentrate, thereby increasing the risk of accidents.

Labour turnover

In many countries, forestry continues to be seen as a sunset industry. Compared to other sectors, employment in forestry is often very unstable. If working conditions are unattractive, turnover is inevitably high, which makes it impossible to stabilize the workforce. A high labour turnover drains skills, and reduces productivity and earnings. Consequently, work in forestry becomes the last resort for people with no other alternatives.


So what positive action can be taken for this situation, which is detrimental not only to the forest worker but also to the industry’s profitability? A step in the right direction has been the development of standards and codes of practice that incorporate safety and health aspects in environmental and productivity requirements. While setting minimum standards for qualification and working conditions this also improves efficiency in forest operations, which in turn provides a basis for better terms of employment, thus creating a more positive image of the profession.

National legislation, labour inspection

In spite of the dangers involved in working in forestry and the high accident rates, many countries lack OSH legislation that is designed specifically for forest work. Forestry frequently comes under the legislation that applies to the processing sector where the environment is more stable and the work processes are highly standardized.

In most developing countries, at least part of the general OSH legislation is applicable to workers directly employed in forestry, for instance legislation on minimum wages. However, it is most likely that contract labour and self-employment are not covered. Additional regulations would be needed for silvicultural operations and tree felling. Only very few developing countries have issued legally binding safety and health regulations for these operations, which can be enforced by labour inspectors (ILO, 2000).

Labour inspection

In many developing countries, labour inspection in forestry has up to now been minimal or non-existent. Only in rare cases have inspections gained the recognition and support deserved because of the high accident risks, and the difficult and often precarious working conditions. Some frequent problems facing labour inspectors are:

Also, the shift to contract labour presents particularly difficult challenges for labour inspectors. In view of these constraints, the impact of labour inspections on OSH and working conditions in many developing countries remains limited until the forestry sector accepts part of this responsibility through self-regulation and self-inspection. A good example is Zimbabwe where fatality rates dropped from seven per year to none, following an industry-led safety campaign in 1996. Also the introduction of codes of forest practice and certification schemes have proved to be an efficient tool to bring about improvements gradually (ILO, 1997c; Wells, 1999).

Ideally, labour inspectors should participate in the formulation of codes of forest practice. It would also be desirable for labour inspectors to be associated with code monitoring teams and to take care of labour aspects during monitoring. This would be an excellent opportunity to introduce labour inspection into forest operations and help to overcome the logistical problems faced by labour inspectors.

International/regional/national standards and codes of forest practice

Originally, the development of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management suffered from a bias towards environmental concerns and economic interests. Social aspects have been covered to a varying and often unsatisfactory extent. This situation is changing and the need to integrate social and labour aspects in national standards for certification schemes and guidelines is now accepted widely.

For example, the revised International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) guidelines of 1998 include provisions for training and OSH, both at national and forest management unit levels. The ITTO manual for the application of criteria and indicators (ITTO, 1999) recommends several actions that would improve OSH and employment conditions if they were implemented.

Performance-based standards, such as the Pan-European Forest Certification (PEFC) Framework and the Principles and Criteria of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), explicitly mention social and labour aspects.


Forest management operations shall maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities.

4.1 The communities within, or adjacent to, the forest management area should be given opportunities for employment, training, and other services.

4.2 Forest management should meet or exceed all applicable laws and/or regulations covering health and safety of employees and their families.

4.3 The rights of workers to organize and voluntarily negotiate with their employers shall be guaranteed as outlined in Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

4.4 Management planning and operations shall incorporate the results of evaluations of social impact. Consultations shall be maintained with people and groups directly affected by management operations.

4.5 Appropriate mechanisms shall be employed for resolving grievances and for providing fair compensation in the case of loss or damage affecting the legal or customary rights, property, resources, or livelihoods of local peoples. Measures shall be taken to avoid such loss or damage.

In Sweden, the national FSC guidelines have used the ILO code of practice on safety and health in forestry work as the standard for safety requirements.

The actual coverage and level of requirements may still vary considerably among countries depending on how the framework or common principles are translated into national standards. It could be expected that these will be harmonized gradually since the certification organizations need to satisfy consumers that products of different origins carrying the same label meet broadly comparable minimum standards. Social aspects (workers’ rights, indigenous and local communities) was the main theme discussed during FSC’s annual meeting in 2000 and is definitely an area where FSC will push for improvements (e.g. improved routines for certifiers to better cover social aspects during revisions).

The FAO model code of forest harvesting practice (Dykstra and Heinrich, 1996) also identified the “development of a competent and properly motivated workforce” as one of four essential ingredients in forest harvesting operations if forests are to be managed on a sustainable basis. The statement also applies to forest operations other than harvesting. The Code provides several recommendations that clearly would contribute to improved working conditions, raise the status of forest workers and curb labour turnover. It has been consulted extensively in the development of several national codes and has been an effective means in promoting the incorporation of social and labour aspects into forest management.

The ILO code of practice on safety and health in forestry work

The high accident rates and incidence of occupational ailments in forestry have long been a concern for the ILO. The governments, employers and workers of ILO’s governing body decided in 1996 to give priority to this subject, to revise the ILO code of practice on safety and health in forestry work and to promote its application in member countries.

Based on an analysis of the OSH problems in forestry and experience with prevention strategies (see, inter alia, ILO, 1991; ILO, 1997a; FAO/ECE/ILO, 1997), a draft code of practice was prepared by the ILO secretariat. It draws on international experience and the numerous lessons learned over the years concerning ways to promote work safety in forestry.

The Code was drafted to satisfy a number of, sometimes conflicting, requirements:

In September 1997, the draft was submitted to a meeting of 30 experts, representing employers, workers and governments of important forestry producer countries. The meeting adopted a revised version of the Code that was endorsed for publication by the ILO governing body two months later. Since its publication, the Code has been translated into 11 languages (ILO, 1998).


The Code emphasizes the need for an integrated approach, by developing a pyramid of measures that are the basis for the safe performance of operations. It is structured in four parts of which the first three deal with measures at the national and enterprise levels, rather than the workplace level (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Safety and health measures at national, enterprise and worksite levels

Part I lays down general principles, sets out a legal framework conducive to safety and health in forest work and spells out the general duties of the numerous actors involved in the sector from authorities, employers, managers, supervisors, contractors and workers to labour inspectors, accident insurers and machine manufacturers.

Part II outlines the elements of a safety and health policy and a management system that translates the policy into day-to-day practice. The Code thus links a management system approach with specific performance requirements.

Part III concerns those measures that cannot be addressed at the workplace, but have to be dealt with at the enterprise level. These include the recruitment and skill development of the workforce. Particular emphasis is put on the latter and skill testing and certification are advocated as effective ways to ensure that supervisors, contractors and workers have the necessary competence. Specifications are provided for tools, machines and chemicals that are suitable for the job and carry the lowest possible risk. Part III also contains a chapter on personal protective equipment that should be used where other preventive measures cannot sufficiently reduce hazards, as well as rules on emergency rescue, shelter and nutrition for forest workers.

Part IV is the most voluminous and provides more detailed technical guidance on the most relevant forest operations, in particular harvesting, and on three high-risk situations, namely windfall, forest fires and tree climbing. In all cases the guidelines are organized into a sequence of measures for:

The Code covers all types of forest workers, including contractors, the self-employed and forest farmers. It contains a number of specific suggestions to improve the safety situation among forestry contractors, who should be subject to the same safety requirements as directly employed workers. In addition, contractors should be registered, contracts should specify safety requirements and include penalties in case of non-compliance. Contractors and their employees should hold skill certificates.

Though it is not legally binding, the Code is an international guideline based on a consensus reached by governments, employer and worker representatives concerned with improving the OSH in the forestry sector. The provisions of the Code should be considered as minimum requirements and are not intended to replace applicable laws, regulations or accepted standards specifying higher requirements.

Follow-up activities

Since the adoption of the Code a number of national initiatives have been launched:


National OSH legislation for forestry

The ILO is currently promoting the ILO Code and assisting member countries and industry to adapt the text to national conditions. An information package for managers, supervisors, trainers, workers and contractors will be prepared to support its dissemination.

Codes of forest practice

Another promising line of action to promote the ILO Code is its incorporation into broader codes of forest practices that do not treat OSH in isolation, but also consider productivity and environmental requirements. The ILO has assisted Fiji and Chile to draw up comprehensive codes, which were published in 1990 and 1997 respectively. It is currently providing advisory services to Uruguay, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and China. These efforts are supported by an inter-regional project funded by the Government of Finland and implemented by the ILO and the Forest Harvesting, Trade and Marketing Branch of FAO.

Forest worker training

Maintaining well-trained staff at all levels in a company is vital to reach acceptable OSH standards, which in turn is a precondition for productive and environmentally sound operations.

The ILO has been involved closely in international exchanges of experience in forest worker training both in industrialized and developing countries. It also had direct responsibility for a number of technical cooperation projects in this area. The following general conclusions concerning developing countries may be drawn from the insight gained over the years:

Training labour inspectors in forestry

Since 1994, the ILO has assisted in training programs for labour inspectors in forestry. Typically the courses last for one week of theory and practical applications. Practical training includes visits to workplaces where demonstrations and exercises are carried out on the use of checklists on working conditions, working techniques and tools and machines. After each presentation or demonstration, participants are requested to prepare checklists to be used in inspection work. This exercise often leads to intensive discussions among participants and raises the absorption of the course content. The checklists are then used during field visits and amended afterwards by pooling the best elements from the groups. At the end of the course the inspectors receive a full set of the checklists they had developed themselves. Such checklists facilitate a systematic approach by inspectors who are generalists, rather than forestry experts. These courses are also beneficial for safety and forestry officers who are engaged in self-inspection and code monitoring.


Challenges and constraints

Reduced impact logging (RIL) techniques will:

Knowledge gaps

Common sense and anecdotal evidence suggest that training pays. However, research on the cost-benefit ratio of investment in training in forestry is quite limited. Such research is needed since it can provide much needed evidence to decision-makers that training is a prerequisite not only for sustainable operations but also for the financial viability of the company. Furthermore, it would help to design cost-effective training programs for RIL that are tailored to specific needs. For the same reason, studies of accident costs are important. The best way of motivating management concern about accident prevention is to demonstrate potential savings.

In countries where RIL is developed, reliable information about occupational accidents and ailments at enterprise and national levels is often unavailable or incomplete. In the absence of a management system, accident records could at least pinpoint problem areas and assist in defining priorities for preventive measures.

Recommendations for the implementation of RIL

The ILO suggests that the following OSH criteria for sustainable forest management should be considered when implementing RIL (Poschen, 2000):

Since its adoption, the ILO code of practice on safety and health in forestry work has proven to be applicable under a wide variety of conditions. In the design and implementation of RIL it should be systematically used as a reference.


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