West Virginia Safety Initiative Is Recognized;

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Forest Resources Association Bestows Safety Award on Jim Scronce for His Efforts to Improve Logger Safety

Combine sky-high workers compensation insurance rates with a less than stellar safety record and stir. Now add in a timber resource manager who likes win-win situations and who wants to see timber companies promote safety on the job. Mix well. What do you get?

Financial incentives for logging companies, a reduced accident rate in the woods, and loggers who take safety seriously. Everybody wins.

This scenario describes a notable achievement of Jim Scronce, who has spent much of his forest products industry career working for Georgia-Pacific. As a result of his efforts to improve logging safety in West Virginia, Jim was honored by the Forest Resources Association (FRA) with its H. H. Jefferson Memorial Safety Award earlier this year.

“Jim Scronce was the first Georgia-Pacific procurement manager who really took an interest in improved safety for loggers,” said Steve Jarvis, the FRA’s director of forestry programs. “Over the years, he initiated programs within his own company to help improve logger safety training and worked very hard on various committees to help develop the Logging Contractors’ Loss Control Workshop, which is used in many states during their logging safety programs. This all culminated in West Virginia, where he was instrumental in working with the state Workers Compensation Board and through the West Virginia Forestry Association to get the Logging Safety Initiative established.”

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Jim began his career with Georgia-Pacific in 1971. Eventually moving to Columbia, South Carolina, he became a staff environmental and utilization forester, becoming involved with Georgia-Pacific’s Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) training program and working with the American Pulpwood Association (which later became FRA) and state forestry associations.

In 1996 he relocated to West Virginia as the company’s group manager responsible for procurement and land management of its Appalachian operations. He soon learned that loggers in West Virginia did not get the same treatment as other occupations when it came to workers compensation.

“The workers compensation rate for logging in West Virginia was extremely high for a number of reasons,” Jim recalled. “The state had some bad debt associated with workers compensation that had to be paid off, and that was being pro-rated back among the various industries. There also were a number of ways to circumvent paying workers compensation because of the structure of the program. And when you looked across the state, the total budget for workers compensation in the logging industry was substantially lower than it was in other industries. So workers compensation didn’t spend as much time on the timber industry as it did on other industries. Consequently, there was all kinds of slippage within the system.”

Jim and other members of the West Virginia Forestry Association (WVFA) — including Buck Williams, who was president, and Steve Carruth of Westvaco — met with the director and commissioner of the West Virginia Workers Compensation program. They discussed alternatives for improving the situation but found that there was no credibility given to logging safety in the state.

“Nobody was emphasizing logging safety,” said Jim. “Very few companies had a formal or structured safety program. No one stressed safety in the woods. Workers were just going to the woods and doing whatever job they were assigned to the best of their abilities, and there was not a whole lot of information or training being used.”

The WVFA had no control over many of the issues related to workers compensation. However, the one thing it could do was to take steps to improve logging safety.

“We set about putting together a safety program we called the Logger Safety Initiative (LSI) and looking for some contract loggers to become involved in it,” said Jim. “We said we were going to add credibility to our safety program, and we told Ed Burdett, who was the executive director of workers compensation in West Virginia, that he could either join us or stand on the sideline and watch.”

Ed rose to the challenge. He contacted WVFA executive director Dick Waybright and told him that if WVFA would put together a logging safety program, workers compensation would help pay for it.

“He said for every dollar that WVFA or the industry raised for logger safety, the state of West Virginia would match it dollar for dollar up to $125,000,” said Jim. “Within six weeks, we had the outline and structure for a logger safety program. We took it to Ed, and he presented it to the rate-setting agency for West Virginia’s workers compensation.” The agency approved the plan.

At that point, WVFA contacted FRA and did a “train the trainer” program. They brought in volunteers from the industry to serve as facilitators and trained them. “Then we held all-day Saturday workshops for logging companies and their employees,” said Jim. “These involved the owners of the operations, as well as all the employees, including timber cutters, skidder and dozer operators, truck drivers — everyone.”

To encourage companies to participate in the Logger Safety Initiative, West Virginia provided a powerful financial incentive. For the first two years of the program, participating companies received a 15% percent discount on workers compensation insurance rates. Companies that participated in the workshop underwent three unannounced safety inspections during the year by inspectors hired by the WVFA, and they were required to score 80% or better on each inspection in order to remain in the program.

At first, loggers were not enthusiastic about having to give up a Saturday to attend the workshops, Jim noted. “At 7:30 on a Saturday morning, you have a group of logging employees showing up for an all-day safety workshop. Imagine the enthusiasm you would see at that. It was about like a trip to the dentist.” To lighten the mood and make the first session more fun, trainers showed videos of such activities as a 1930s bulldozer race.

What made the workshops successful was the interaction of the loggers. “The person in front is just the facilitator,” noted Jim. “Each facilitator starts talking about things he has seen happen, and then it becomes a self-teaching thing. The participants really get into it. By the time we finish in the late afternoon, we literally have to drive off and leave people talking in the parking lot.”

Because timber workers tend to move from employer to employer, the effects of the Logger Safety Initiative are spreading beyond just the 64 companies that have participated so far. “I recently ran into a company that had not been a part of the Logger Safety Initiative,” said Jim. “Yet more than half of the employees on that job had participated in it. So we’re seeing it move around. No matter where those trained people go, they’ll have some impact on someone else who may not have participated.”

As the Logger Safety Initiative nears the end of its third year, it’s too soon to tell exactly what long term effect it will have on West Virginia workers compensation rates. “We want to see a reduction in workers compensation insurance,” said Jim. “But what we really want is a reduction in pain, injuries and suffering. We have some figures that workers compensation has provided to WVFA that indicate that there are fewer incidents. And the incidents that we have had, the injuries are less severe than they were in the past.”

The Logger Safety Initiative was not the result of his efforts alone, Jim emphasized. “I may have been on the forefront of it, but I didn’t do it alone. I had an awful lot of good help that came from Buck and Steve, the WVFA, and many other people. There was a host of people who stepped forward and put effort into the Logging Safety Initiative of West Virginia. Those are the guys who should get the credit. Somebody had to be the chairman, and that was me. But it was a lot of hard work for a lot of foresters. And a lot of logging contractors took the time to get their employees to show up on Saturdays, and in many cases paid them time and a half to be there.”

The Logger Safety Initiative is proving effective at improving the safety record of loggers and other timber company workers in West Virginia. And when the state resolves its debt problems with workers compensation, Jim and others expect to see rates for timber companies come back into line with those of other industries.

“The most important thing Jim has done was getting this initiative started in West Virginia,” said Steve. “Loggers were pricing themselves right out of the business. High workers compensation rates were forcing them to not be cost competitive any more. Without this ongoing effort, West Virginia forest industries were going to be at a great cost disadvantage to the rest of the U.S. Focusing on loss control activities was the only alternative for them to bring their workers compensation rates down.”

In October, the Georgia-Pacific land and timber resource group merged with Plum Creek Timber. Plum Creek elected not to retain a number of long-time Georgia-Pacific employees, and Jim was among those who were laid off. He had been employed more than 30 years with Georgia-Pacific. Jim continues to serve as chairman of the Logger Safety Initiative, however, and is still working for improved safety in the woods.