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Heavy logging, light risks: Keeping workers safe in high-risk environments means treating them like humans

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August 14, 2023
By Todd Humber

Health & Safety Forestry Heavy Equipment

Sig Kemmler. Photo: Submitted.

Amid the cacophony of whirring engines and clanging metal, as heavy equipment moves back and forth, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping workers safe, according to Sig Kemmler.

“Everything is so intermeshed and intermingled. But one of the most important things, for sure, is communication,” said Kimmler, managing partner and ground-based logging manager for Integrated Operations Group, a forestry company based out of Campbell River and Duncan on Vancouver Island.

In forestry, for example, WorkSafeBC wants to see an environment with no “phase congestion.” The BC Forest Safety Council defines it as “a situation where different logging phases — such as planning, falling, road construction, production or blasting, etc. — become bunched up or congested, with an increased risk of negatively affecting the productivity and safety of each phase, putting workers at higher risk of an upset or incident.”

Kemmler said that, if you can manage the communication and activity between the phases, that goes a long way in keeping people out of the way. Every worker he puts in the field is equipped with a two-way radio.

“There’s never a reason not to communicate with the people beside you, in the helicopter or in the logging machine,” he said. “There’s never an excuse not to find out what he’s doing if you’re not sure. We’re soft like jellybeans. We don’t do well with logs hitting us.”


Simple behaviours, high risks

Kemmler gave the example of a worker who needs to stop and sharpen their chainsaw.

“Sounds pretty simple, right? But where are you doing it? Are you bending down behind a machine? Are you turning your back on a helicopter that is coming in for landing? Sometimes, it’s the super simple things where guys can get into trouble, where they’re not being conscious of what’s happening around them.”

Years ago, an old-timer told him a nautical phrase that stuck: “Not a lot happens at zero knots.” It’s something worth keeping in mind — if you’re going to do something like sharpening your saw, or an activity not associated with a piece of machinery, get yourself out of its way before you do that task, he said.

‘You will get complacent’

When Kemmler hears someone say, “don’t be complacent,” his eyes roll.

“You will get complacent. You’re a human being, the last time I checked, and not a machine,” he said. “And you had a fight with your wife last night… and that’s going to bug you from time to time.”

If you know your mind isn’t on the task, remove yourself from the situation — even if it’s for 10 minutes.

“Sit down and have a coffee, or have a smoke or whatever,” he said. And then you can say to the team, “watch out for each other because every one of you is going to get complacent at times and, if you’ve got your buddy watching out for you, fantastic.”

He’s also not a fan of simply telling workers to be safe.

“That’s such a stupid thing to say, because just think about it. We tell somebody to be safe — what does that mean?”

Many injuries in the bush are related to trips and falls, he said.

“What do you do? Tell a logger, when he goes to work that morning, don’t fall? You will probably trip and fall four times today or even 10 times today because of the work you do,” he said.

Instead, the message is what are you going to do to make sure that fall doesn’t cause an injury? And if somebody does take a tumble, the buddy system can come into play as most of his teams work in pairs.

“If you trip or fall or something like that, take five and get yourself refocused and let your buddy know that you fell,” he said.

Black box culture

Kemmler pointed to the airline industry and what’s known as “black box thinking” as an example of what to do. Decades ago, airlines realized that safety was paramount for the survival of their industry.

They established robust safety protocols, overseen by government organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, he said. The International Air Transport Associations, which represents 300 airlines comprising 83% of global air traffic, said there were 39 total accidents in 2022, including five fatal accidents. That means, on average, a person would need to take a flight every day for 25,214 years to experience a 100 per cent fatal accident.

He contrasted the safety record of airlines to the health-care industry. Hospitals, particularly ones in the United States, have a culture of concealing mistakes, he said. A Johns Hopkins study from 2016 found that about 9.5 per cent of all deaths, or about 250,000 people annually, stemmed from medical error.

“They have a culture, pretty much, that it’s super bad to screw up — and you better hide,” said Kemmler. “That doesn’t work. Safety culture has to be a culture in which you can’t shoot the messenger. You can’t shoot the guy who screwed up. You just can’t.”

The ‘condition of upset’

Safety professionals need to quit pretending that they’re perfect and stop saying “silly” things like “be safe” and “don’t get complacent.”

“It’s like telling someone don’t ever get mad, really. Rather, let’s give people the tools and methodologies to be responsible for the human condition — which is to get pissed off and be upset,” he said.

For example, in the safety protocols at Integrated Operations they have something called “condition of upset.”

“Say you’ve got a pencil in your hand, and you’re walking down the road and the pencil falls out of your hand. That was an unintentional act of the pencil falling out of your hand. That’s a condition of upset. Nobody’s upset — there’s just the condition,” he said.

The moment that happens, and the worker recognizes the condition, they need to stop and think about their next step, he said.

“Don’t just get pissed off, bend over and pick up the pencil and be hit by a car or whatever,” he said.

One of his employees once dropped a wedge on a super-steep hillside. “And you know what he does? Without just letting the wedge go, he dives for (it) and then goes crashing down the hill and scratches up his face,” he said. “Well, what’s the impact of the wedge falling down the hill? Zero. You would have had to walk 20 steps to get it.”

Humans tend to reach without thinking — grabbing the pencil or leaping for the wedge — and “we’ve got to recognize it ourselves and stop and deal with it.”

Learning from mistakes

Kemmler said safety professionals can learn from the airline industry and how they deal with accidents — investigate them so workers don’t just say “shit happens.”

He talked about a worker on one of his projects who was on a steep log, coming up a hill, and he slipped and fell hard. He asked the worker to write up the close call. The worker took the paper and was complaining in the kitchen to a colleague about how stupid it was — having to fill out the form — because he was just a little banged up.

Kemmler took it as a learning opportunity and went into the kitchen to speak with him.

“If you take a look at any incident there’s always a point in time in which if you would have altered your action in that second, in that point of time, the outcome would have altered,” he said. “And he says to me, ‘I wouldn’t have done a damn thing different.’”

A colleague in the kitchen spoke up about a time he fell in a similar manner and suggested a couple of things to do differently in the future. It led to a conversation around what could be improved to lessen the risk.

“We came up with two or three different actions over that close call,” he said. “But it started off as an argument over ‘Who cares, I just fell.’ And then nobody writes anything, and then you don’t have access to the incident.”

His company’s safety doctrine has a statement. It notes that, for every serious accident or fatality, there are 600 close calls statistically.

“That’s 600 opportunities to learn and change something before that fatality or accident happens,” said Kemmler.  “And so that’s why we are investigating our close calls. It’s not to put the blame on somebody.”

There’s one bottom line for Kemmler when it comes to the issue: “Can you imagine going to work knowing you’re going to get punished if you get hurt? You know, besides the pain of getting hurt?”


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