Safety first and always

Heather Lynch

On August 5, 2010, 33 miners were left trapped 700 metres below the ground in the Atacama Desert in Chile.  The workers survived underground for an unprecedented 69 days and on October 13, miraculously, all 33 were rescued and brought to the surface. The health of the owner of the mine, San Esteban Mining Company, is less certain, however.

According to the Chilean Safety Association, eight workers have perished in the mine over a 12 year period and between 2004 and 2010 the company has been slapped with no less than 42 fines for breaching safety regulations.

The parallels between the forestry and mining sectors are numerous. In 2009, Canada’s forestry sector (inclusive of forestry, logging, pulp and paper product manufacturing and wood product manufacturing) contributed $21 billion to Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provided hundreds of thousands of direct jobs, as did Canada’s mining industry.

While the economic retrenchment has favoured the mining industry more favourably than the forestry sector, production has remained slow across commodities, and high-cost operations have shut down as a direct response to high costs (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2010). No one familiar with Canada’s forestry sector needs reminding that our industry has suffered similar ills. However, the health and safety of those employed by the sector has improved significantly, despite a number of challenging demographic factors. 

According to the BC Forest Safety Council, BC’s forest industry is considered one of the most hazardous sectors in the province. This is attributable to a number of factors including an aging workforce, the necessity of shift work and irregular hours, and fitness problems resulting from the repetitive operation of machinery.

Despite the challenging operating environment, however, health and safety statistics are improving significantly. According to the Forestry Safety Association of Newfoundland, in 2004, the province’s forestry sector experienced a total of 93 lost-time injuries. By 2008, this figure had dropped to 31 lost-time injuries. Similarly, in 2004 Newfoundland’s forestry sector witnessed a total of 140 medical aid instances, but by 2008, this number plummeted to 53. In Ontario, lost-time injuries fell to a new low of 278, marking a 30% drop from 2007.  According to the Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association (OFSWA), of the 1,350 forestry firms in Ontario, a total of 89.5% reported zero lost-time injuries in 2008 and more than one third of the 123 forestry firms that have 20 or more full-time workers on their payrolls reported no lost-time injuries in 2007.

Statistics are similar in other Canadian provinces as forestry safety associations strive to communicate the importance of continued emphasis and investment in the occupational health of employees.  Despite that the province of Ontario experienced a 50% drop in full-time hours worked during the 2002-2008 period, the number of OFSWA training sessions and consultations remained consistent or increased during the same timeframe. 

As we make our way through 2011, and as Canada’s forestry sector continues to experience challenges, we must continue to protect our most valuable investment: our people. Canada’s forestry industry is ripe with skill and talent and must be safeguarded with as much diligence as is credited to our shareholders and investors. In the aftermath of the Chilean mining accident, there is little doubt that safety must always come first