Trade Groups Lead Way for Safe Logging

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Logger Associations in Oregon, Montana, Louisiana Leading Successful Safety Efforts

For most companies, keeping insurance premiums down is an uphill battle. Group health insurance, worker’s compensation insurance and other benefits are becoming increasingly difficult to finance.
Unfortunately, all it takes is a couple of accidents to cripple a small to medium-sized logging business. In a national atmosphere of rising health care and workmen’s comp costs, how does a small business survive?
According to Rod Huffman, insurance agent on staff with the Associated Oregon Loggers for the Oregon State Accident Insurance Fund, the most important thing a company can do to control workmen’s comp costs is to improve safety. Insurance companies reward safe operations with lower rates. Lower rates mean savings that translate into more profits or additional financial resources available for more benefits or other expenses.
Of course, safety on the job is not something that occurs by happenstance, noted Dan Dructor, vice president of the American Logging Council. It is the result of a team effort between logging contractors and logging trade associations, and not all associations are created equal.
Three state trade associations that have done a particularly good job in helping their members with safety programs, according to Dan, are in Louisiana, Montana, and Oregon.
In distinguishing the good from the mediocre, there is no magic formula, said Dan. It boils down to the effort and commitment an association makes to safety, and the resources they devote to it.
“They’re doing these programs for reasons other than to say ‘We did it’,” said Dan. “They have active reporting measures, highly involved safety rangers. It’s not just a classroom that finishes, then everybody goes to work with no follow up.”
Trade association programs can greatly enhance the safety of logging operations if contractors avail themselves of the resources, he said.
From offering incentives to companies that implement regular training schedules to hiring safety officers with ‘boots on the ground’ experience in logging, there are many ways associations can raise awareness about safe work practices.
What it’s all about, said Keith Olson, president of the Montana Loggers Association (MLA), “Is making safety our number one job so we get everyone home, every day.”
The Montana Logging Association’s safety program has evolved over the organization’s 35-year history, observed Keith, who has served as president for 25 years. It provides progressive safety training during the spring thaw.
The association has about 600 member loggers, and Montana loggers have relatively low accident rates. Association safety staff deal with contractors to bring them into compliance with federal safety regulations, which helps keep accidents down and prevents the logger from paying a costly fine as the result of violations that may be uncovered in an OSHA inspection.
The Montana Logging Association employs three safety rangers, all with actual logging experience. The safety rangers hold college degrees in forestry or have the equivalent in forestry class time.
In addition, they are selected in part for their ability to communicate. “We don’t want somebody up on a job who doesn’t understand what these guys trying to do,” said Keith. “They have to handle a problem without sparking resentment.” Communication and good rapport between the safety rangers and loggers, the association and its members, are critical to the success of the safety program.
In the early 1990s, worker’s comp premiums were soaring. It cost employers about $1.70 to pay every $1 in wages, Keith recalled. Loggers struggled to survive financially.
Even in the most safety conscious operations, workers have accidents and are injured. For small companies that suffered an accident on the job, operating costs were not sustainable, said Keith.
A group of logging contractors formed a reciprocal worker’s comp company and kept the rates low, and the MLA supported it by offering safety training and education that brought them up to federal standards. When the worker’s comp storm blew over in the late 1990s, the company was sold, and the contractors returned to regular insurance plans. Worker’s comp rates now are down, according to Keith, costing employers about $1.45 to pay employees $1.
Another issue in logging safety is the aging work force, noted Keith. As the industry becomes starved for young blood, the average age of workers is climbing into the 40s.
While experienced workers may not commit the rookie mistakes of a young, 20-year-old logger, safety lapses due to complacency are a significant threat. What that means for safety programs, said Keith, is a shift in focus. “The aging work force is a safety issue,” he said. “It’s not knowledge you need to impart, but regular re-training to get them to pay attention.”
The MLA addressed the change when it noticed a shift in injuries as loggers embraced mechanization. Loggers were suffering more knee and ankle injuries from improper equipment mounting and dismounting techniques. It was an area where many employees who had been in the field for a long time were not giving much thought. The injuries drove up worker’s comp rates for otherwise good operations, so the association started targeting its yearly safety refreshers to focus on these kind of accidents. For the most part, according to Keith, it looks like it is working.
Though an aging work force does not affect the worker’s comp rate much, it does hit employers in other ways. “One advantage to an aging work force is you’re working with experienced hands,” said Keith, “but they have aches and pains, and they get aggravated easier. It also affects the cost of health insurance.”
The trick to keeping a company in business is staying ahead of the curve with safety and looking for new trends, said Keith, and a good trade association helps its members do that.
“If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer two or three bad accident years in a row, it’s going to be very difficult to stay in business,” he added, “even if those accidents weren’t from any operator fault. It could be coincidence, but in our experience that’s usually not the case. Everybody has a bad year, but the ones that stay in business turn that around and use it to build a better safety program.”
In 2000 OSHA targeted industries with high accident and mortality rates on a state by state basis. In Louisiana, logging was near the top of the list. Instead of gearing up for a skull-cracking enforcement blitz, though, OSHA came up with an innovative solution known as AOSHA Partnerships. The partnership program allows members of the state association — the Louisiana Loggers Council — to register for voluntary inspections with a state level OSHA officer who works solely with loggers.
Bill Kleinpeter, coordinator of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for the LLC, said the new safety partnership program puts more emphasis on educating and less on penalizing.
“Loggers can sign up for inspections in May and November,” he said. “We send their names into the state, and the state Department of Labor handles OSHA. The officer goes out and inspects the job and tells the outfit what it needs to do to meet OSHA standards. The officer tries to make a yearly inspection of every company. There’s no charge, no penalty if the state officer goes out there and finds small stuff wrong.”
The idea that a logging business can have a less stringent state level inspection that runs off a federal checklist is the incentive behind the program, said Bill. Loggers have the confidence of knowing they are in compliance, and OSHA has a working relationship with loggers instead of being seen as the regulatory ‘bad guys.’ Louisiana signed up for the program in 2000, the first state to join the AOSHA Partnership.
There is evidence the approach is working. According to University of Louisiana professor Cornelius DeHoop, who tracks trends in the logging industry and forestry management, logging accidents reported in Louisiana fell 50% in the last four years.
With nearly 1,100 members, Associated Oregon Loggers (AOL) is the largest state logging trade association in the U.S. Although it would be easy to fall into the trap of slow moving bureaucracy, AOL president Jim Giessinger has made it his mission the past 10 years to keep the organization’s safety program streamlined.
“We employ five loss control consultants who go out into field every day,” Jim explained. “Then we have two return-to-work specialists who help injured workers find gainful employment so they can get back to working as soon as possible. After that, we have a full time safety training consultant on staff who conducts seminars throughout year.”
Though AOL has a formidable staff program staff, its commitment does not stop there. Over the past five years the association has worked on an updated safety code, which recently went into effect.
“We implemented what’s called the Division 7 logging code,” said Jim. “It was a collaborative effort between industry and OSHA. It’s a more workable and user friendly code than we had in the past.”
In addition to the updated code, the state insurance fund has incentives for association loggers who make it a point to give more than lip service to a safety program. “We offer 75% dues back for providing first aid, CPR training, and hearing test safety updates to company employees,” said Rod. The fund also widely distributes bumper stickers and training videos to keep the message fresh.
Under Oregon law, insurance is sold through the Oregon State Accident Insurance Fund. AOL enters the picture in brokering between the fund and its members, which allows the organization to negotiate for lower premiums and group rates. Because AOL retains fund agents on AOL staff, there is close cooperation between the two. It has the double benefit of assuring the state that loggers are getting a square deal on workers comp issues and clears out red tape for the association.
What really matters to loggers at the end of the day, when the training is said and done, said Rod, are the monetary incentives that come with a low accident rate. If a logging business has a bad safety record, its experience modification — a factor determined by the National Council on Compensation Insurance — goes up, and its insurance premium is higher. In the current environment of tight competition for a limited number of logging contracts, a company with a higher experience modification will have a much harder time competing with a company with a lower one. Logging contractors cannot sustain a high experience modification and stay in business in today’s marketplace, said Rod.
What it boils down to for companies that want to stay in business and grow, he added, is having a regular employee safety training program.