Forestry: High risk, but manageable
Forestry is widely considered to be one of the most dangerous industries in which to work, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unsafe. BRIAN DARLINGTON shares some tips to ensuring a safe work environment
When researching which professions qualify as high-risk, forestry and commercial deep-sea fishing are almost always ranked among the top three (together with transportation), with forestry sometimes ranked as the industry with the highest risk.
This is quite alarming when you consider that, as an industry, it’s up against so many other high-risk professions such as searching and lifting of landmines, underground mining, electrical power-line workers, astronauts and firefighters.
High risk need not mean unsafe
Being regarded as one of the highest-risk industries doesn’t necessarily mean that forestry needs to be an unsafe industry. Yes, there are risks associated with various forestry activities, including, for example, silviculture, harvesting and the transportation of personnel and logs, but there are things that can be done to ensure the safety of employees.
These include identifying associated hazards or risks and developing suitable controls related to the three main safety elements: personnel safety and health; safe equipment; and ensuring a safe and healthy working environment.
Let’s look at some of these safety hazards and controls in a little more detail and explore what best practice looks like.
Forestry operations are typically labour intensive with widely spread tracts of land or activities. This requires daily transportation of significant numbers of employees and equipment to the various compartments of land (harvesting and silviculture).
In addition, the personnel transport vehicles sometimes travel long distances over treacherous terrain, often in extreme weather conditions. This perpetuates the potential for vehicle incidents and possible serious injuries and/or life-altering or fatal injuries. As a result, the transportation of personnel is often one of the highest-risk areas in forestry operations and warrants closer inspection and investment into appropriate controls.
Examples of some of the risky behaviour typical of personnel transportation include:
• Inappropriate transportation of employees and contractors: It is not uncommon to see people being transported by tractor-driven trailers (sitting or standing) or on the back of pickup vehicles (bakkies). This is illegal and provides no protection against injury in the event of a traffic incident.
• Carrying tools and equipment in the same compartment as personnel: This presents serious risk of injury with equipment being flung around in the event of a traffic accident.
To protect employees and contractors, suitable personnel carriers should be used, equipped with individual seats and seat belts for everyone in transit. Also, the tools and equipment should either be stored in a separate compartment, or transported in a separate vehicle.
It is unfortunately not easy to engineer out all the risks associated with personnel transportation, but, by ensuring vehicles are appropriately equipped and by developing a culture where seat belts are used, injuries would be less severe in the event of an accident.
To make a meaningful difference to a company’s safety culture, there needs to be a consistent commitment to safety at all times. Companies can’t, for example, hope to develop a 24-hour safety culture at work when exposing their employees and contractors to unsafe modes of transport en route to work.
This suggests an insincere commitment to safety, which has the potential to create confusion as to when or how safety controls should be applied. Companies need to consistently insist on safe behaviour 24-hours a day, every day.
In many instances, modern forestry companies have mechanised their harvesting operations, thereby maximising yield efficiencies and safety. There are, however, still instances where manual harvesting is conducted. In these cases, the use of chainsaws poses a risk to operators and other employees working in the area during tree felling, as they could enter the drop or danger zones of falling trees.
To manage this risk, safe distances need to be clearly defined. For example, no person may come within 100 m (or two tree lengths) from the base of a tree being felled. It is also important to ensure that everyone in the team understands where the felling is taking place and what’s expected of them at all times – thereby ensuring their own safety and the safety of their colleagues.
Tree-felling activities should also be separated from other tasks, such as debarking or cross cutting, to keep teams apart and out of the danger zones. This can all be achieved through developing and sharing pre-harvesting plans as part of the daily toolbox talks.
Fire hazards and firefighting teams
Fire season in South Africa is always a concern to leaders, senior managers and safety, health and environment professionals. A combination of hot and dry summer conditions increases the potential for fires. In most South African forestry operations, company firefighting teams consist of employees and contractors, sometimes supported by other companies and farmers in the region.
Careful selection and thorough training of corporate firefighting teams is critical. This helps to ensure that they are suitably prepared for duty even if they are not professional firefighters. This includes being declared fit by a medical practitioner, in terms of general health and physical fitness.
Companies also need to ensure the availability of all necessary firefighting equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and proper training of all firefighting teams.
Training includes regular fire drills to ensure a deep understanding of firefighting duties and to strengthen the safe behaviour needed when faced with unexpected events such as wind changes that could cause fires to jump across roads or compartments.
It is advised that all firefighting team members be put through their paces by attending refresher training and participating in firefighting drills prior to the fire season.
This should be aligned with the annual medical and fitness check. I highly recommend the film Only the Brave (which is based on a true story) for all firefighting teams, as it highlights the risks of firefighting and how quickly conditions can change and lead to fatal consequences.
Wild animals and insects
Forestry activities are always at risk of incident or injury from wild animals, reptiles and insects. The likely species to be encountered varies from country to country. Those involved in forestry operations in Russia and Finland, for example, stand the risk of encountering bears and wolves, while South African operations face the risk of snakes and bees or, in some cases, even elephants and buffalos!
To guard against attacks, clear safety rules and controls should be implemented. These include:
• Daily checks to identify the presence of any wild animals or beehives;
• Assigning one person as the watch to identify any wild animals entering the work area. The person could be provided with an air alarm or whistle to give an early warning to others and to initiate the evacuation procedure;
• Providing safe assembly areas where people gather in the event of a wild animal approaching. Personnel transport carriers often present a sensible assembly point as these vehicles are always in close proximity to the workers. Once all workers are safely in the vehicle, they can be moved out of the danger zone;
• Some companies issue their employees or contractors with nets to place over their heads to protect them against bee stings;
• In areas that have a high risk of snakes, some companies provide snake awareness training for their forestry employees. This helps to manage the fear and to ensure the correct safety precautionary steps are followed when encountering a snake;
• It’s important to familiarise all forestry employees with their environment, including what they can or should expect to encounter, and what they should do when faced with possible attack by an animal, reptile or insect.
Log loading, transportation, mobile plant and equipment
Log loading and transportation is an everyday activity in the forestry industry, with road trucks, trailers and rail wagons loaded for delivery to paper mills, sawmills and other storage areas. These are typically high-risk areas with the presence of large mobile plant and equipment, such as log handlers and collection vehicles, as well as smaller equipment used for stacking the logs.
The movement of people within these high-risk areas adds to the danger. Strict rules and controls must be in place to separate people from the equipment and the loading and offloading areas. As with harvesting areas it is critical that there are controls and that rules are clearly understood. For example:
• Safe distances need to be defined and adhered to around all loading and offloading areas, including railway sidings.
• There must also be a clearly understood plan for all drivers while their vehicles are being loaded and offloaded. Some companies insist on drivers standing in a clearly demarcated waiting area, or remaining in the cab of the vehicle during loading and offloading.
• Railway sidings are ideally designated as no-go areas for any person while wagons are being loaded or offloaded.
Another important consideration ahead of log transportation is the safe stacking and securing of the logs on the vehicles. A load falling while in transit places other road users at risk. This can be avoided by carefully securing the load and not stacking it higher than the stanchions (the upright posts) of the truck and/or trailer.
Some examples of good practice during loading and transportation include:
• The operators of the mobile plant responsible for loading or offloading trucks and wagons must be empowered to take full control and responsibility for the area around their equipment. When a person enters the danger zone, the operator needs to stop their activity immediately and instruct the person to leave the area.
• Unlike in paper mills, the offloading area is not always at the same place. Providing a designated safe waiting area for drivers is therefore not possible. As an alternative, an easily visible pole with a flag (similar to those used on golf courses) can be placed at the defined safety distance ahead of any loading or offloading.
• Ensure mobile plant and equipment are suitably equipped to provide maximum protection for operators. This includes seat belts, rollover protection, and bulletproof windscreens and doors (for protection of falling trees or flying objects).
• Drivers are required to inspect the securing of the load prior to leaving the compartment and at frequent intervals along the journey. This helps to ensure the straps are all still secured and that no logs are at risk of falling off. It is recommended that each bundle of logs be secured with two straps.
Extreme weather conditions
Forestry employees are always exposed to the weather which can, at times, be extreme. In South Africa, summer temperatures may reach in excess of 40°C. It is, therefore, critical to make sufficient water available and to provide shaded areas for colleagues to rest out of the direct heat of the sun. This ensures continuous hydration and prevents possible heat stroke which is potentially fatal.
In addition to extreme temperatures, forestry employees also risk exposure to lightning strikes. Standing under a tree is far from an ideal place to be during a thunder storm. Suitable controls, clear rules and procedures should be in place and all employees should be trained in the appropriate steps to follow in the event of an approaching storm. These include:
• Appointing a person to monitor weather and storm forecasts, and to provide necessary and timely warnings to the teams;
• Implementing clear rules of when an area needs to be evacuated;
• Agreeing on the assembly points. The safest place to be during a thunder storm is in a well-constructed, earthed building, but with such buildings seldom available in the forests or plantations, the next best place in which to take shelter is in a vehicle;
• Implementing the safe return rule. This could, for example, confirm that employees or contractors are only allowed to return to their respective tasks 30 minutes after the storm has passed; and
• Appropriate and repeat training for all employees or contractors in the actions to be taken in the event of lightning strikes, such as moving to safe areas, or clarity around what to do if caught out in the open during a strike. This could include, for example, seeking shelter in low areas such as a ditch or ravine, moving away from water sources such as rivers or streams, and moving away from metal structures such as fire towers, water tanks and fences.
Solitary working conditions are quite common in forestry operations. This brings considerable risk. Controls need to be implemented to ensure employees or contractors are safe, can summon assistance in an emergency and are contactable. Risk assessments for solitary work must be conducted and consideration given to the level of supervision required.
For example, the complexity of the work, remoteness of the activities and the competence of the individuals in dealing with the likely challenges need to be assessed. Risk assessments and controls should address the security of the employees and what actions need to be taken in the event of an emergency and injury.
These controls should include the intervals between supervisor visits, intervals between telephonic or radio contact, and emergency contact details and procedures. New employees should not be placed in solitary working conditions without suitable training and competency tests. Conducting regular medical examinations is also important in ensuring employee suitability for solitary work.
Slip, trips and falls
The risk of slip, trip and fall-related incidents in forestry is a reality. There are a number of precautions that companies can take, including:
• Providing training in the correct way of falling to reduce the likelihood of serious injuries;
• Insisting on the use of hard hats to prevent head injuries when falling; and
• Providing suitable covers for slashers and sharp-edged tools that can be placed over the equipment when not in use and when moving between working areas. This helps to avoid contact with sharp tool edges during a fall.
Although most fall incidents are not of a serious nature, there is always the risk of fractures. Precautions must therefore be taken, and controls implemented to reduce the severity of these incidents.
There is a need in all industries, including forestry, for companies to develop an interdependent safety culture where everybody looks after their own safety and the safety of their colleagues.
This requires a total commitment from everyone – from senior leaders and middle management, through to first-line managers and their teams of employees and contractors.
To ensure an effective interdependent safety culture, communication and engagement are key. Leaders need to engage employees to understand what the barriers are to working safely and agree on the controls to be implemented.
Forestry remains a high-risk industry. A 24-hour safety culture requires companies to consistently insist on safe behaviour. There also need to be suitable controls in place, a clearly understood set of rules and adherence to all necessary procedures.
If backed up by an interdependent safety culture, this greatly reduces the probability of incidents and the severity of injuries in what is typically a high-risk industry.