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Forestry, a safe and healthy profession?

P. Poschen

Peter Poschen is the Forestry and Wood Industries Specialist of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

Based on an updated report to the International Labour Organisation's Forestry and Wood Industries Committee (ILO, 1991a), this article examines international trends in occupational safety and health in forestry, with a focus on industrial harvesting operations. Beyond the description and analysis of the incidence of accidents and diseases as well as their causes, it attempts to set out why this issue matters and makes suggestions for what can be done about it and by whom.

Unsafe manual trading of pulpwood logs in Indonesia

"Is your job killing you?" was the provocative cover title of Parade Magazine (Sunday supplement to United States newspapers), 8 January 1989, which looked into the risks associated with occupations in the United States. The research quoted in the journal identified forest workers as the occupational group whose answer to this question was most likely to be "yes". The current article confirms this disturbing situation in the majority of both industrialized and developing countries throughout the world. Perhaps even more disturbing is that, despite forestry's sad occupational accident and health record, the issue is not high on the list of priorities in most countries. Although many people and organizations use the slogan "safety first"; in reality, this is not the case.

Forestry: A neck-breaking job

Forestry work is generally characterized by a combination of natural and material risks to the health and safety of forest workers. The natural risks are associated with steep and broken terrain, dense crops and adverse working conditions, including extremes of climate - both hot and cold. The negative effects of these natural features are often made worse by the inadequacy or absence of work site welfare facilities, food and drink, appropriate clothing, etc.

The chainsaw, particularly when used without appropriate protective equipment, is the single most dangerous tool in forestry

Further risks are created as a direct result of the forestry operations themselves, both those involved in logging and those in subsequent processing. Falling trees, even relatively small ones, as well as the loose branches that accompany them are extremely dangerous and can cause serious accidents. The handling of trees during transport and conversion is also a risky job and the forces involved may lead to serious injuries if they get out of control. Primary processing is also fraught with dangers.

The combined result is a profession in which the accident rate has long been higher than that in many others. In all countries where comparative statistics are available, forestry has a higher accident frequency rate than most other industrial sectors. Furthermore, it would appear that a forest worker is about three to four times more likely to have an accident than an agricultural worker (ILO, 1981). Although Fig. 1 illustrates the situation in Finland and the United States, similar data can be found for most countries: forestry work is one of the most dangerous and risky occupations of all.

National and international organizations have made repeated attempts to obtain and compare forest accident statistics of one country with another but this has proved to be extremely difficult. Regulations concerning which accidents have to be reported and reporting habits vary so widely that most attempts are misleading.

Virtually the only significant expression permitting a comparison of occupational hazards between countries is the number of fatal accidents per million m3 of timber harvested (see Fig. 2) and, even here, data are very difficult to obtain.

FIGURE 1. The Incidence of fatal accidents in selected occupations in Finland and the United States

Fig. 2 is in line with results from other studies, suggesting that the situation is considerably worse in developing countries than in industrialized ones. However, it also contains surprises: there are differences between some countries, such as Austria and Switzerland and the United States and Canada, that cannot be explained by the variation in terrain, tree sizes or harvesting technology.

TABLE. Severe accidents according to activity in wood harvesting in Nigeria, 1978-1986























Source: Dickson, 1987.

Hot spots - dangerous jobs, tools and groups at risk

Industrial forestry work may be roughly divided into three categories: silviculture, harvesting and processing. If accidents are broadly grouped along these lines, harvesting-related accidents, often accounting for up to 70 percent of total accidents, far outweigh those incurred in the other two categories (ILO, 1981). Within forest harvesting, felling and cross-cutting are the jobs most prone to accidents, particularly serious and fatal ones (see Table).

The chainsaw is clearly the single most dangerous tool and the chainsaw operator the most exposed worker in forestry. The situation depicted for Malaysia in Fig. 3 is found, with minor variations, in most other countries as well. In spite of increasing integrated mechanization in the industrialized countries, the chainsaw is likely to remain the key problem with regard to accidents in wood harvesting.

FIGURE 2. Fatal forest accidents per million m3 of timber harvested in selected countries, 1980s

Occupational diseases

Forestry accidents take a heavy toll but a far more serious and insidious health problem is created by the constant exposure of forestry workers to excessive physical stress; heat (or sometimes cold); noise; vibration; and, ironically in the case of modern machinery, boredom. Occupational diseases are the result of repeated or continuous exposure to unfavourable environmental conditions and become apparent after a certain lapse of time.

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

Back pain, resulting from physically heavy work and unfavourable working postures, is very common among chainsaw operators. An extensive survey in Germany found that, after ten years of work, one-third to one-half of workers complain of back pain. Among older workers, up to two-thirds may be affected (Sabel, 1986).

Hearing loss results from continuous exposure to noise. Chainsaws, power brush-cutters and many skidders and loaders by far exceed the noise level that can be tolerated without hearing damage. Under full load, chainsaws produce a level of noise that will affect unprotected ears after only 15 minutes of exposure. A study in New Zealand found a progressive deterioration with increasing numbers of years in logging. After 15 years of forestry work about half of the workers surveyed had hearing defects (McFarlane, 1989). Similar noise-related diseases are often associated with primary processing operations, for example sawmilling [Ed. note: see article by Staal Wästerlund and Kufakwandi, p. 13].

Mechanized tree harvesting - using feller-bunchers and processors for felling and delimbing and skidders and forwarders for transporting loads to the roadside - is making great strides in many industrialized countries, particularly in northern Europe and North America. In Sweden, harvesters now account for more than 85 percent of the total annual cut of 65 to 70 million m3. Machine operators are well protected in guarded cabins and accident risks drop significantly (see Fig. 4 for a comparison between the number of mechanical and chainsaw felling accidents in British Columbia, Canada). Machine operators have less than 15 percent of the accidents suffered by chainsaw operators in harvesting the same amount of timber.

FIGURE 4. Lost - time accidents in chainsaw and mechanical feeling in British Columbia, Canada, 1985-1987

However, the reverse side of the mechanization coin is an emerging problem of neck and shoulder strain injuries among machine operators. These injuries result from the long, repetitive and monotonous hours of manipulating the controls. While difficult to diagnose objectively, occupational health specialists agree that such injuries may be as incapacitating as serious accidents and may force operators to give up their job. Significantly, it is self-employed machine owners and contract labourers who suffer most. The average machine contractor in Sweden, for example, works almost 59 hours in the machine per week rather than the 40 hours regarded as normal for directly employed workers. If time spent travelling to the workplace is included, contractors have a ten- to 12-hour working day, usually six days a week (Lidén, 1988).

Special risks for women in forestry

Although appropriate silvicultural practices, including forest regeneration, are an essential part of sustainable production, the growing attention paid to such practices has introduced a new element of danger for forest workers. Planting, pruning and thinning as well as the application of fertilizers and pesticides are becoming increasing safety risks.

Both in developing and industrialized countries, a significant portion of these tasks are undertaken by women. Even in industrialized countries, with extensive networks of laws and regulations governing the use and distribution of agricultural chemicals, studies have evidenced the fact that female forestry workers (more than males) were not made aware of the risks associated with the products they were using (samba, 1984).

In Ethiopia, the average bundle of fuelwood or fodder carried by women far exceeds the ILO maximum safe load of 20 kg

Another special challenge for women in forestry relates to the lack of appropriately designed and sized protective clothing.

Women working in forestry may also be exposed to significantly greater health risks than men. Owing to smaller body size, lung volume and heart and muscle size, women's work capacity is on average about one-third lower than that of men. Correspondingly, legislation in many countries limits the weight to be lifted and carried by women to about 20 kg (ILO, 1988). These limits are often far exceeded by women working in forestry. Studies among planting workers in British Columbia, Canada, showed that both men and women were expected to carry full loads of plants averaging 30.5 kg, often in steep terrain with heavy ground cover (Smith, 1981).

Excessive loads are also common where women work as fuelwood carriers. A survey in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for example, found that the average bundle of fuelwood carried by women weighed 30 kg and was carried over a distance of 10 km. The work is highly debilitating and results in numerous serious health complaints, including frequent miscarriages (Haile, 1991).

Risks vary according to work structure

In almost all cases for which data are available, there is a very significant difference in occupational risks among segments of the workforce. Full-time, professional forest workers who are directly employed by a forest enterprise are far less affected than farmers, self employed or contract labour. In Austria, farmers who are seasonally engaged in logging suffer twice as many accidents per million m3 of wood harvested as professional workers (Sozialversicherung der Bauern, 1990), while farmers in Sweden suffer even four times as many (Skogsbrukets Yrkesnämd, 1985; 1989). In Switzerland, workers employed in public forests have only half as many accidents as those employed by contractors, particularly where workers are hired only seasonally and in the case of migrant labour (Wettmann, 1992).

Why do safety and health in forestry matter?

As in all other industries, the protection of workers is above all an ethical matter, but accidents are also a cost factor. In addition, there are two forestry-specific reasons why safety and health matter in this sector: the hazardous nature of the job creates a very negative image of the profession and, by extension, of the sector at large, both among the actual workforce and the general public. Finally, unsafe working methods are also directly linked to much of the environmental damage caused by logging.

Occupational accidents and health impairments are a source of great human suffering and, as such, affect the expectations that every man and woman has regarding personal physical and psychological health and integrity. Moreover, many countries have only rudimentary social security systems and are unable even to buffer the economic difficulties faced by a family losing its breadwinner, let alone to help with the occupational rehabilitation of accident victims.

Safety also makes economic sense. In addition to the substantial direct costs associated with accidents, such as compensation, medical treatment and wages, there are indirect costs which may be several times higher. An example is a fatal logging accident in Sarawak (Malaysia) in which a tree fell over a crawler engaged in opening a skidding train. The operator was killed and the machine badly damaged, incurring direct costs of about $M 19400 but more than $M 111000 in indirect costs. It is noteworthy that profit loss was not considered and, therefore, the actual indirect costs would be significantly higher.

In countries where accident insurance plans are in place, premiums go up as compensation volumes rise. In some industrialized countries, workers' compensation fees have become one of the largest cost factors of all, seriously affecting the economic viability of logging businesses. In the United States, for example, insurance costs often amount to as much as 40 percent of payroll expenses, i.e. US$ 40 of insurance have to be paid on top of every US$ 100 of wage (Garland, 1989).

Accidents and the prospect of health impairments and consequent early retirement are high on the list of perceptions contributing to the negative image of forestry work. They reinforce the popular notion that forestry is a "3-D" job: dirty, difficult and dangerous. An immediate consequence for the sector are the difficulties encountered in many countries to retain good workers and recruit suitable new ones. A less suitable and less proficient workforce results in lower productivity, higher cost and more accidents a vicious circle (ILO, 1991b).

The poor accident record in forestry in many countries makes it all too easy to portray the industry as ruthless vis-à-vis its own workers and to corroborate the claim that the same attitude prevails towards indigenous peoples and the forests as well. For example, pictures of badly mutilated victims of forest accidents in Sarawak, Malaysia, have been used in anti-logging campaigns (INSAN, 1992) and to substantiate the claim that the industry is "logging against the natives".

The link between safety and the environment is not as far-fetched as it may appear. As was explained in the foregoing, felling is the single most important cause of accidents. The very same techniques that allow a worker to fell a tree in a safe and controlled manner have to be used to bring it down with a minimum of damage. Directional felling reduces the damage to the remaining stand, shortens skidding distances and limits any resulting damage while preventing losses through splitting or breaking of the log itself. The same techniques are therefore needed for safe and environmentally sound forest harvesting, particularly in tropical forests.

The economic costs of unsafe practices are high - this logging truck has been completely destroyed

In Fiji, nearly all contract chainsaw operators in the pine plantations now use appropriate protective equipment

What can be done to improve forest worker safety?

Although the situation presented above is vastly unsatisfactory, there are examples of progress and success in promoting safety and health in forestry. The following cases serve to demonstrate that there is ample scope and opportunity for improvement provided there is a will to achieve it.

A disproportionate number of accident victims are poorly trained new entrants, particularly those employed by contractors. In response to this situation, a number of countries have established minimum standards of training required by all workers. Certification schemes have been put in place to provide training and to test compliance with the standards (for the United States, see Spoerke, Wallace and Flemming, 1992; for the United Kingdom, see Bardy, 1988). Some developing countries are progressing along similar lines. A particularly promising approach is the application of codes of forest practice such as the one adopted in Fiji which sets clear environmental as well as safety standards for forest operations and stipulates that no forest worker may carry out a job for which he has not been trained (Fiji Ministry of Forests, 1990). A certification scheme has been introduced by Fiji's Logging School to ensure through skills tests that workers comply with the standards specified in the National Code of Logging Practice. Mobile training units are used in a growing number of countries to train seasonal forest workers and farmers who may be difficult to reach through courses offered in training centres.

The dramatic improvements that are possible with a commitment to safety are illustrated in Fig. 5. The number of accidents occurring in a major forestry company in Brazil plummeted in spite of a rise in the number of workers when the company established a special section for occupational safety, hygiene and medicine in 1970.

Work organization is crucial for safe operations and is also a key to high productivity and to preventing health problems for machine operators. New types of work organization have been developed in Sweden, involving job rotation, overlapping shift schedules and team work. Initially designed to reduce the neck and shoulder injuries of machine operators, they are also raising efficiency, inter alia, because of higher rates of machine utilization (Lidén, 1992; Pontén, 1992; Norin, 1992).

FIGURE 5. Number of injuries and average number of forest workers in the Klabin do Parana Agro Florestal S.A., Brazil, 1968-1986

Similarly positive results were obtained in developing countries such as Zambia and Chile with improvements in worker nutrition. Diets were found to be inadequate for the heavy work and, often, workers ate only after the working day was over. In both cases, the companies paid for improved meals and provided food at the workplace, thereby significantly improving both worker health and productivity.

Some risks inherent to the nature of forest work cannot be eliminated by safe work organization, good working methods, adequate working conditions and training. In such cases personal protective equipment helmets, visors, safety boots, gloves, protective trousers - has proved to be an effective last line of defense. Fig. 6 shows the impact of the introduction of cut-proof trousers and leggings on the frequency of chainsaw accidents to the leg in New Zealand. While safety gear may appear costly, particularly in the eyes of employers and workers in developing countries, there are good reasons to view it as an investment rather than a cost. Many countries now prescribe protective equipment that has to be used and, in most cases, is to be provided by the employer.

FIGURE 6. Chainsaw accidents to the leg in New Zealand, 1983-1988

An encouraging example may be taken from Fiji where a recent survey of pine plantation logging showed that, of the chainsaw operators - all employed by contractors - 98 percent used safety helmets, 72 percent used ear protectors, 82 percent used safety chaps or trousers and 80 percent used safety boots.

In many cases a low-cost first step towards safer operations is the meaningful investigation and collection of statistics of accidents that have occurred. The purpose is not to attribute blame M identify culprits but to learn for the future. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has issued guidelines for simple accident reporting procedures (Apud et al., 1989). Disseminating the findings of such investigations through leaflets with sketches and short descriptions of accidents and advising how to avoid them can be an effective means of raising awareness among workers.

FIGURE 7. Human factors have an impact on safety in forest work

Safety starts at the top

Although the examples cited in the previous section clearly demonstrate that a lot can be done about worker safety and health in forestry - often in the best economic interest of all involved - it leaves open the question of responsibility.

Government, employer and worker representatives reached an agreement on this point at the Second Session of the ILO Forestry and Wood Industries Committee in April 1991: "The responsibility for safety and health rests with governments, employers and workers. However, the main responsibility rests with the employer..." (ILO, 1991c).

In many developing countries, governments wear two hats: that of the regulating and inspecting authority and that of a large forest owner directly employing a workforce, hiring contractors and overseeing concessionaires. Government, therefore, plays an extremely important role in improving the safety situation. Regulation and inspection are barely existent in many developing countries. Where the resources are available to enhance these instruments, the emphasis should be on guidance, motivation, education and advice rather than on enforcement and punishment. The approach of the Finnish National Board of Labour Protection is an inspiring example.

In many cases, workers are at the receiving end of regulations, orders and safety measures - or their absence - rather than being allowed to provide inputs and take an active part in improvements, loins management and labour safety committees are a very effective mechanism in many countries and have contributed significantly to the good record of northern European countries, for example. There are also cases of effective ad hoc company-level initiatives. One such case is a participatory safety and hazard management programme in British Columbia, Canada, where a company reduced accident frequency in logging camps by 75 percent and compensation claim costs by 62 percent while improving productivity by 10 percent. Increased worker involvement in decision-making was a key component of the programme (Painter and Smith, 1986).

More clarity about how much influence the various echelons in an enterprise have on safety is badly needed. Accident investigations all too often conclude that the cause of an accident was "human failure", implying that it was ultimately the victim's own fault. Fig. 7 summarizes the factors that have an impact on safety and shows who has control over them. Of the eight factors listed, there is only one over which the worker has primary control, i.e. the actual execution of the work. At that stage the scene is largely set by decisions made at a higher level. Safety has to be a joint endeavour that is actively supported by all echelons in the enterprise but, if it is to be achieved, it has to start at the top. It is people like the readers of this magazine who make the decisions that matter.


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