By Ken Ward Jr.
Loggers in West Virginia are more likely to be hurt or killed on the job than coal miners.
Like construction workers, loggers work outside in all kinds of weather. Their work year is short because they can't cut trees when the weather gets too bad to get into the forests.
More than 1,000 West Virginia loggers make an average of $260 a week, or about $13,500 a year. The average West Virginia worker makes $430 a week. An average chemical plant worker or coal miner might make twice what a logger earns.
By any measure, logging is the most dangerous occupation in the state:
- Nationally, the reported fatality incidence rate is more than 8 times that for mining, and 53 times that for manufacturing. In West Virginia, the fatality rate for loggers is 14 times higher than for mining. More than 7 out of every 1,000 loggers in th e state will die on the job each year.
- Every year, one workers' compensation claim is filed for every four West Virginia loggers. In the 1993-94 financial year, nearly 300 loggers were injured on the job. This claims rate is the worst of any industry. It is ahead of that for explosives maki ng and building demolition. It is twice the rate for underground coal mining.
- When loggers are injured, their reported injuries are more severe than injuries in other industries. Nationally, three-quarters of those injured missed more than one day of work. The average lost time case results in 23 days away from work.
Ask state Workers' Compensation officials about workplace safety in the logging business. They'll give you a confusing chart of numbers showing that timber companies pay higher premiums than other industries.
Ask the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about logging safety. They'll send you an even more confusing computer printout of accidents across the state or nation. OSHA might send you a copy of its complicated new rules meant to improv e logging safety.
Ask the statewide lobbyist for the West Virginia Forestry Association. He'll tell you there is a problem - well, he'll kind of tell you that.
"It's not enough for me to say I don't agree there is a safety problem," said forestry association director Dick Waybright.
"I think there is a safety awareness problem out there," he said. "The problem we have with loggers who haven't complied with the new safety standard is they've been in the business a long time, they don't feel it's necessary and they feel it's an infrin gement on their personal rights.
"But I think the more business-conscious logger out there realizes their workers deserve these protections," Waybright said. "There is a concern about safe logging. The fact is it is a very dangerous occupation."
Kelly Lee Holcomb studied logger safety and wrote a report about it as part of a public interest fellowship at the West Virginia University College of Law.
In an August 1995 report, Holcomb alleged that safety problems in the logging industry are underestimated by state statistics.
Many loggers work alone without employees and are not required to pay into Workers' Compensation, the report said. Many, many more companies and operations simply do not comply. The 1990 Census reported twice as many loggers in the state as Workers' Comp ensation figures report, Holcomb found.
"Even when an operator does subscribe to Workers' Compensation, the filing of claims is discouraged," Holcomb wrote. "Unskilled, non-union workers who fear for their jobs cannot stand up to the pressure."
Currently, one safety measure is required by the state: One member of each logging crew, the supervisor, undergoes four hours of training.
Under state rules, this training by the state Division of Forestry deals primarily with chainsaw operation. Only 1 percent of logging fatalities and one-fifth of injuries result from chainsaw accidents. Almost one-fourth of logging injuries nationally oc cur when loggers are hit by trees, limbs or logs. Another quarter are caused by slips, trips or falls.
In the coal industry, every underground miner must complete 80 hours of classroom training before entering a mines, said Steve Webber, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
Prospective miners must score more than 80 percent on a test to obtain an apprentice miner card, Webber said.
Apprentice miners must work as "red hats" for six months, or 108 shifts.
"The apprentice wears a red helmet so everyone will know that he or she is new," Holcomb wrote. "During this period, the new underground miner must always be within sight and sound of an experienced miner.
Miners must also take eight hours of retraining each year to maintain their certification, Webber said.
"It is surprising that no such requirements exist for logging. Given this discrepancy in training requirements, we should not be surprised that the logging injury rate is higher than the underground mining rate."
Holcomb points out the new OSHA rules, which went into effect in February 1995, do require training for all loggers. That training must be provided by the employer whenever loggers are assigned new work tasks, tools, equipment, machines or vehicles and w henever an employee demonstrates unsafe job performance.
But Holcomb contends the OSHA program "is fatally flawed."
"The theory of allowing an experienced employee to conduct the training is that it provides an employer flexibility in tailoring training programs to the individual circumstances under which they operate," she wrote.
"Some training on local conditions and operations is a good idea, but allowing all training to be conducted by an employer leaves too much room for neglect," she wrote. "If safety training were the priority that it should be among operators, the current disastrous injury rates would not be so high."
Holcomb proposed six changes she said would improve logging safety in West Virginia:
- All loggers need to have quality, independent training in all of the areas in which injuries occur. Once they receive training, they should get a card. Continuing education should also be provided.
- State logging safety requirements should be similar to OSHA's nationwide rules.
- State officials should keep track of what causes most logging injuries.
- A "West Virginia Safe-Harvested Timber Products" program needs to be implemented. Any timber or wood products made from timber that was harvested in West Virginia by safety-trained loggers should be authorized to bear a special seal. This would allow b uyers to choose to buy only safe-harvested wood.
- Logging companies that comply with safety training rules for all employees should be given lower Workers' Compensation rates.
Holcomb argues that improved safety would help logging companies, the state government and the families of loggers.
Companies currently pay huge Workers' Compensation premiums and lose work time when employees are injured. The state loses because Workers' Compensation claims for loggers cost the state nearly $1 million more than logging companies pay into the system.
"Society will benefit greatly from a safety training program," Holcomb wrote.
"A reduction in injuries and deaths translates into an increase in productivity," she wrote. "Working loggers contribute to the economy. Funds devoted to medical expenses, Workers' Compensation premiums and Social Security benefits can be devoted to prod uctive uses.
"More importantly, the needless suffering of loggers and family members would be alleviated."
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