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20. Safety and occupational health in forestry operations in Australia - Changes in approach through time - Robert McCormack*

* Forest Technology Program, CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, PO Box E4008, Kingston 2604, AUSTRALIA, E-mail: [email protected]


Forestry operations in many parts of the world experience high injury rates of workers when compared to other industries. Australian forestry operations follow this trend where work-related death rates between 1989 and 1992 were 97 per 100 000 workers, some 17 times the average rate for all industries in Australia (NOHSC, 1999). Within the timber-harvesting occupation, serious injuries and fatalities are by far the most common in timber felling. The problem is not new, indeed it has been recognized as serious for a long time (Crowe, 1983), and has received considerable attention. There is some evidence that the situation in Australia is improving, at least in terms of fatalities (NOHSC, 1999); this paper attempts to highlight some of the developments that have led to this.

Workers in the field of safety and occupational health identify many contributing factors to an industry’s overall safety performance. In the case of forestry operations, forest characteristics, climate, the requirements of the industry, workers’ skills, working methods and technologies employed all play a part. Forestry safety practice is also influenced by the achievements and standards set by other industries and by pressures from society as a whole. As a relatively small forest economy that imports much of its forest technology, Australian forestry workplaces are also influenced by overseas developments related to equipment, work methods and training approaches.

Each country has its own occupational health and safety story to tell. This paper provides a perspective on the last 50 years for the Australian industry. It concentrates on hardwood tree felling, the object of much of the concern over the period. The paper aims to highlight the driving influences and describes some predominant forces in each of the relevant decades. There is, as yet, no definitive historical description of Australian forestry work practice of the period and so the paper relies on published information and the personal experiences of the author.


The Australian forestry sector has witnessed a number of major developments during the last 50 years. It experienced a post-World War II expansion and the virtual completion of the first round of cutting of the old-growth native eucalypt forests available for timber harvesting. The annual hardwood-cutting rate has been about 10 million m3 for much of this period. The early 1970s witnessed the development of a new large industry, based on wood-chip export operations, designed in many instances to allow a rehabilitation of degraded cut-over forest. The period also saw the development of large areas of plantations (primarily softwood), about 1 million ha, which now provide more than two-thirds of the nation’s wood needs.

The other major influences have been technological, and Australia’s experiences have paralleled those of many other countries. They include the development and application of chainsaws, bulldozers and heavy trucks in forestry operations. More recently we have witnessed the pervasive use of hydraulic excavators, and in our planted forests, the application of fully mechanized harvesting systems.


Increased capabilities of tractors and trucks underpinned rapid increases in logging productivity and made additional forests areas economically accessible for timber harvesting. There was a large demand for timber products to support post-war economic expansion. As chainsaws became lighter and their operation more practical, they were adopted enthusiastically by tree fellers.

One of the unexpected impacts of the new technology was on the work organization of tree felling. Tree felling in native forests was an activity that had hitherto been commonly a team effort of two or more people. Chainsaws made tree felling possible with one person, although in many cases the traditional practice of employing an assistant who helped to carry the backup tools and fuel supplies lingered on for some years.


This period saw the rapid expansion of the new wood-chip industry across many parts of Southern Australia, based on the integrated harvesting of native forests for both sawlog and pulpwood material. These operations produced about half of the industrial logs from native forests. The pulpwood material was destined primarily for export as woodchips. These new operations were often characterized by a doubling and trebling of daily production targets for logging crews. Fellers were asked to cut almost all of the trees, rather than those of sawlog quality only. The increased recovery levels also allowed the economic logging of more marginal, often steeper forests that would not have supported logging for sawlogs only. In many forests, the additional non-sawlog trees were either the small variety, or large trees containing a high proportion of rot and defects. There were new dangers for fellers in both classes of trees. Felling smaller trees is relatively unproductive, and many small trees need to be felled to equal the volume of one large mature eucalypt stem. When coupled with a piece-rate, or production-based method of payment, this encouraged some fellers to use quick, but risky work techniques such as felling without a scarf. This new felling work also involved large defective trees, previously overlooked because of their higher levels of rot or decay and this was also more dangerous. Increased risk arises because the location of sound wood, or its strength distribution cannot be determined by just looking at the standing tree.

At the same time, traditional work patterns based on felling teams were disappearing. Timber fellers in Australia were and still are generally paid on a piece-work basis. Increased productivity demands, the need to cut small trees, the increased capability and reliability of lighter chainsaws all led to solo working, and the loss of the “apprenticeship” style of learning opportunities for felling skills. Formal training opportunities varied by employer and region, but were relatively few at the beginning of this period. Wage growth and employment demands in competing industrial sectors were high, and labour turnover increased as workers left for alternative jobs, compounding the skill and training problems.


The declining skill levels and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) problems of the 1970s were recognized in a number of regions and steps were taken to address them. One set of important initiatives centred on training. Regional training teams were developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s in several states. They provided both initial and follow-up training for timber fellers (Crowe, 1982) and the developed schemes accreditation. They were supported by training materials, often relying strongly on international experience and publications.

A second set of initiatives centred on research was based on investigations of injury statistics of six important native forest production regions by Crowe (1983). He demonstrated the extent to which workers employed in felling and crosscutting had by far the worst accident record among forestry workers. At that time, this group comprised one-third of the workforce, but suffered two-thirds of the accidents. A correlation study of injury frequency with output levels showed a strong increase in accident levels with increasing daily output per feller.

Henderson (1990), working in Tasmania in the mid-1980s, investigated several key aspects of work performance in hardwood felling, physical work effort, judgement and prediction of dangerous work outcomes and tree felling accuracy. A summary of key aspects of Henderson’s study is presented here because they still provide a useful insight into the nature of tree felling.

The sample group contained about 40 subjects, about 10 percent of the number of fellers then working in the logging industry in Tasmania. Workers’ ages were evenly spread, ranging from 20 to 50, and work experience averaged over 9 years, ranging from 2 to more than 25 years. Several important and surprising findings emerged. Physical work effort was high, but the majority of the workers were assessed as operating within medical recommendations of 35 percent of maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max). However, more of the older workers were working at very high proportional levels. Related measures of heart rate identified a number of subjects working at excessive heart-rate levels. The combination of measures led Henderson to identify a number of workers within his sample that he classified as “at risk”, that is a combination of both an excessive work rate (%VO2 max) and abnormally high heart rate. These individuals might be classified as not physiologically suited to timber felling.

Henderson used psychological assessments to compare the temperament and other mental attributes of his subject group to those considered desirable or essential by instructors and older experienced bushmen. These attributes were: (1) fatalism, seen as an accepting approach to the hazards and difficulties of the job; (2) patience and imperturbability; (3) inclination toward a steady productive working tempo, except where a “catch-up” was necessary; and (4) the drive and determination to maintain and improve personal standards of workmanship, despite pressures to “cut corners”. He reported that the results of the psychological tests for the subject group did not support a number of the preconceptions held by the instructors and old hands. His results indicated that as a group, many fellers were not significantly different from reported norms for the general population concerning the four investigated attributes. However, statistical testing indicated that they did conform to the stereotype of being more hard-driving and competitive than the general population.

In a test of their ability to control tree felling, Henderson measured the final resting position of felled trees compared to the fellers’ declared intended direction. He classified more than half of the studied felling events as inaccurate (divergence of more that 5°), and one- third as very inaccurate (divergence greater that 10°). Subjects were also asked to rate the risk or awkwardness of the cut prior to the event as a measure of their confidence of success. Overall, the results indicated that subjects were unrealistically overconfident in their ability to fell accurately.

Henderson’s important conclusions for his subject group were that for tree felling “... it is not the case of the voluntary acceptance of carefully calculated risk and consistently accurate outcomes, but more that of a pattern of inevitable and ‘normal’ errors in spite of the mythology and tradition surrounding the occupation.” He suggested that the survival of these people is related to the frequency of dangerous and defective trees, and other random failures in the forest environment. In short, the results suggested that fellers thought they had more control over events than was actually the case.


The 1990s saw an intensification of effort in the management of hazards and risks through revised regulations, development and recognition of standards together with recommended procedures and a clarification of management’s role and responsibility.

Efforts to ensure agreed standards for the manufacture and use of equipment, including protective equipment, was a feature of the 1980s. The work was conducted under the auspices of Standards Australia, the national standards body. In the 1990s these efforts matured, and the resulting standards became a key part of the new workplace safety procedures. The range of topics covered is indicated in Table 1.

Table 1. Australian standards for equipment and application relevant to timber felling

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 1270

Acoustics - hearing protectors

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 1800

Occupational protective helmets Selection, care and use

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 1801

Occupational protective helmets

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 2161

Occupational protective gloves

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 2210

Occupational protective footwear

Australian Standard 2726

Chainsaws - safety requirements

Australian Standard 2726.2

Chainsaws - safety requirements Part 2: Chainsaws for tree service

Australian Standard 2727

Chainsaws - guide to safe working practices

Australian Standard 3574

SAA Forest Safety Code

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 4453

Leg protection for users of hand-held chainsaws

Australian Standard/New Zealand Standard 4602

High visibility safety garments

During this period, many states revamped their workplace occupational health and safety legislation to reflect a concern by Australian society to see improved standards of workplace safety. There was an increasing use of the legal system and a focus by courts on liability and a pattern of increasing compensation payouts to injured workers. This provided a major economic incentive to the industry to improve their OHS performance to limit the otherwise increasing costs of (compulsory) workers’ compensation insurance. These changes were felt across all industry, not just forestry operations or timber felling, although the more dangerous industries received increased scrutiny. Legal cases and revised legislation also focused increased attention on the employer’s and supervisor’s roles and responsibilities to workers.

These signals were interpreted by officials of government departments charged with regulating workplace health and safety issues as they drafted new industry guidelines for the forestry industries. New practice guidelines such as the Forest industry occupational health and safety information booklet (Geeves et al., 1995) moved some of the previous emphasis on the training, skill level and responsibilities of the individual worker, towards a greater recognition of the importance of workplace characteristics, the working systems employed by the whole logging team and the responsibility of the employer to ensure a safe workplace.

The roles, responsibilities and degree of independence of logging contractors were also proving important for other reasons. In Australia, commonly, timber has been sold by forest owners to the forest industry as stumpage. The forest industry employs logging contractors to harvest and deliver the wood “from the stump”. Thus, while at least three parties have a vital interest in the performance of logging operations (forest owner, timber mill and logging contractor) the primary sales agreement is only between two parties (the forest owner and timber miller). Mill-owner representatives were often required, under the terms of timber sales contracts, to assume important responsibility for negotiation with the forest owner concerning significant forest engineering decisions. This led, in some cases, to a pattern of involvement with contractor employees involved in the execution of logging plans. The assumption of a high level of responsibility by some timber millers’ representatives contributed to a confused situation as to who was responsible for job-site management and supervision, including important aspects concerning workplace health and safety.

Management and supervision difficulties were also arising in relation to meeting rising standards of environmental care. Several states had developed codes of logging practice by the early 1990s. Although timber sales were usually on a stumpage basis, environmental care responsibilities commonly rested with the landowner, who therefore had a direct interest in the performance of the logging crews. In the case of state-owned forest, state regulations usually required that timber-harvesting contractors and workers held a range of operating licences. These same regulations provided the basis for state forestry supervisors to issue work instructions. Thus, loggers often received directions from the contractor, their direct employer and also from the timber mill and landowner representatives who were not their employers. The confusion in responsibility on many logging worksites led to strong pressure for clarification of commercial, occupational health and safety, and environmental responsibilities. During the 1980s and 1990s these issues drove continuing improvement in the form and content of legal contracts.


Three current trends in relation to the occupational health and safety of timber fellers working in Australian native forests are noteworthy: (1) the increasing reliance on safety-management systems; (2) the drive to mechanize felling and cross-cutting operations wherever possible; and (3) transfer of logging responsibility from the timber mills to the forest owner (i.e. a move away from stumpage sale to sale of logs at the mill door).

Safety management systems, largely modelled on quality management systems such as ISO 9000, emerged in the late 1990s as a way of assuring that safety procedures were instituted by work teams. For example, SafetyMap (WorkCover Victoria, 2000) is coming into use in southern Australian timber-harvesting operations and is required increasingly as a prerequisite to contract acceptance. SafetyMap (and similar programs) is based on regular audits to ensure the operation of an effective safety program. It requires explicit written safety procedures and stresses continual improvement. In a complementary development, regulatory authorities are developing formal codes for safety procedures (i.e. Forest safety code (Draft), 2000). These provide basic standards to underpin the development of workplace safety systems, and provide an important complement to the safety-management systems.

Another trend is toward increased mechanization of felling and cross-cutting operations. The very large size of many of the mature eucalypt trees had hitherto exceeded the capability of available forest machinery. However, the continuing development of large-tracked hydraulic excavators, and the demonstration of their capacity to work within the forest provide an effective machinery base for the development of tree felling and cross-cutting applications. Several manufacturers are now providing equipment that is being used for tree felling in Australian native forests. There are still important limitations on the size of trees that can be felled safely by these machines. However, they do offer the opportunity to fell a significant proportion of many stands and they are more suited to the smaller tree sizes encountered in regrowth forests. The addition of hydraulic chainsaws to the loading grapples of the large capacity excavators used for debarking and loading has allowed many aspects of cross-cutting to be mechanized.

A third trend is for forest owners to assume control of logging and transport, to sell at the mill rather than on the stump. Logging is still done by independent logging contractors. The change suggests revisions in who employs loggers, and the need for new contracts and business relationships to be created. These revisions have the potential to reduce confusion in regard to workplace responsibilities, with the forest owner now the primary authority for payment as well as environmental supervision.


Occupational health and safety have been a concern in forestry operations for a long time with high injury and death rates when compared to other Australian industries. This paper traced developments on forestry operations occupational health and safety practice in Australia by using the example of timber felling in native eucalypt forests and tracing changes through the last 40 years.

In timber felling, perhaps the most important event was the introduction of the lighter individual chainsaw in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This not only saw significant changes in productivity but also in the organization of timber felling. A transition to solo working by timber fellers removed an important opportunity for skill acquisition through on-the-job apprenticeship. Increased production levels associated with integrated sawlog and pulpwood harvesting meant that many more trees were felled, including a significant proportion that was more defective and dangerous to cut. Put simply, technical change caused the job to change with important consequences for occupational health and safety.

Initial responses were to increase training, focusing on skill acquisition by the individual feller. Regional training teams were formed in important Australian production regions and these were credited with significant achievement. Detailed ergonomic research on the performance of individual fellers showed, however, that some other factors needed further consideration. Henderson’s conclusions relating to skill in tree felling showed that even experienced fellers were not as proficient as they believed themselves to be and that tree felling variation appeared to be influenced strongly by tree characteristics not perceived by the feller. Tree felling in eucalypt forests had a high level of inherent danger that training of the individual might not adequately eliminate.

During the last two decades a growing concern by Australian society with safety at the workplace has focused increased attention on legal measures and regulations. Increased compensation payments led to higher insurance premiums. More attention has been put on the responsibility of employers and supervisors, and the doctrine of “Duty of Care”. There was increased recognition that safety was partly a characteristic of the whole workplace and the logging team, rather than just an issue for the individual tree feller. The development of safety-management systems is one of the major current initiatives being pursued in this area. Other developments seek to reduce risk by mechanizing the task and putting the fellers into machine cabs. This follows the highly successful model of the softwood plantation industry, but faces some limitations due to the very large size of some mature eucalyptus trees.

Approaches to occupational health and safety in forestry operations have undergone major changes during the past decades. Many factors beyond the immediate circumstances of the tree and the feller’s skill have been important. Changes in technology, in social attitudes and standards, and developments in other industrial sectors have all been important. Safety in forestry operations has now been acknowledged as an overall problem of management, requiring long-term attention.


Crowe, M.P. 1982. Eden logging investigation and training team - the first two years. Australian Forestry 45(2) 98-106.

Crowe, M.P. 1983. Hardwood logging accidents and counter-pressures for their reduction. Unpublished Dissertation for Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management, Ballarat College of Advanced Education, Victoria.

Geeves, R., Rigby, P. & John, P.C. 1995. Forest industry occupational health and safety information book, Workplace Standards, Tasmania.

Henderson, M.E. 1990. Felling Australian hardwoods an ergonomic study of a high-risk occupation, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Latrobe University, Victoria.

NOHSC. 1999. Work-related traumatic fatalities involving timber activities in Australia, 1989 to 1992. Epidemiology Unit, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Australia.

WorkCover, Victoria. 2000. SafetyMAP: Auditing health and safety management systems, 3rd Edition. Victorian WorkCover Authority, Melbourne.

Workplace Standards, Tasmania. 2000. Forest safety code (Tasmania) Draft.

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