By Andrew Mitchell
Two recent incidents of logging trucks tipping over on Highway 99 in the Whistler area were addressed by council on Monday.
The issue was raised after Councillor Ralph Forsyth’s wife, Stephanie, sent a letter to the municipality, expressing concerns about the heavy volume of trucks, the speeds that the trucks are moving, and the fact that both incidents occurred at a time when school buses are on the road.
Council referred the issue back to municipal staff, who will look at the issue.
According to Councillor Forsyth, his wife sent the letter after discussing the problem with other members of the community.
“A lot of people see these trucks flying through town, and they’re concerned,” he said. “Both accidents with trucks losing their loads happened around three o’clock in the afternoon, when school buses are on the road, and when you put those things together it’s a none-too-pleasant recipe.
“We can do a few things about it. One of the initial things is to write a letter to the Ministry of Transportation, and to call the RCMP to see if we can get a crackdown on drivers that might be speeding. Maybe we need a meeting with the minister. We’ll have to see what staff comes up with, and what they recommend. We’re not powerless in this issue.”
Whistler Council is not the only entity concerned about safety issues in the forest industry. The union representing most of B.C.’s forest industry workers drew a line in the sand recently, demanding the province reconsider recent changes to the industry that they claim have devastated the economy of rural B.C. communities while increasing the risks for workers and the general public.
Specifically, the union is concerned about the scuttling of a long-standing law that the majority of wood cut in any region be milled or processed locally. The result has been the closure of 39 mills in communities throughout the province, including Squamish, longer hauls for overworked logging truck drivers, and the downloading of dangerous work to contractors at every level of the industry that makes it harder to maintain or enforce safety standards. Forestry workers that were once on salary are now paid hourly or by commission, a system that rewards people for working long hours or for working quickly.
According to Steve Hunt, the Western Canada director for the United Steelworkers, which represents many forestry workers, the Canada-U.S. Softwood Lumber Agreement is the primary reason for the changes, although the companies that own the bulk of forest tenures in the province had been pushing for many of the changes even before the trade dispute. The result, he says, has been carnage.
In 2005 at total of 43 forestr industry workers were killed in B.C., a record for an industry that was already considered among the most dangerous in the province. Several agency and organizations responded by launching safety campaigns, including the B.C. Forest Safety Council, WorkSafe B.C., and ICBC, while the union launched its own “Stop The Killing” campaign. Some of the solutions tabled include cutting back on hours for logging truck drivers, new certifications for hand-fallers and drivers, and new safety regulations that could be applied to every stage of the forestry process. WorkSafe B.C. also put more investigators into the field to conduct health and safety inspections, while the B.C. Coroner’s Service assigned a full-time coroner to investigate all forestry deaths and make recommendations.
Those programs are definitely having an effect, with only a dozen workers killed in 2006 — well below the annual average of 30 deaths. However, Hunt believes most safety issues are systemic to the industry, and can’t be addressed by adding new certifications and regulations.
“Right now the Forest Safety Council charges fees to certify workers and big and small companies can get Safe Company rebates, which is good in some respects,” he said. “But if someone is certified and then they change the rules — and the rules are constantly changing — then they would have to recertify to be in compliance. What we would prefer is for all parties to sit down and talk about ways to make things safer at the most basic level.”
According to Hunt, the foundations the industry is built on are fundamentally unsafe and the industry will, in a sense, have to be rebuilt from the ground up to incorporate safety at every level.
While Hunt hopes the recent rule changes can have an impact, he says they will be effective only as long as they are followed.
“Right now they are still subject to quite a bit of abuse,” he said. For logging truck drivers, who are often paid per load, he says recent changes don’t go far enough.
Under recently amended federal laws, logging truck drivers are allowed to work 14 hours a day and seven days a week for consecutive weeks, reduced from 15 hours. A recent provincial regulation, however, reduced that further to 13 hours a day and six days per week, with two hours a day for vehicle servicing.
“I don’t think we went far enough, because drivers are still being forced into the position, especially when they are owner-operators, to drive longer hours than what the law says. They get pushed into dangerous positions because they have to make their payments.
“So many different elements come into play with truck drivers. They don’t want to lose their position unloading at the mill or loading in the bush. In the summer if they get behind a Winnebago that’s going slow, it throws off their whole timeline and they’re going to try to pass. If they get a flat tire, they may not get their three loads a day, and without those three loads they may not be able to make payments, or afford to take their families on a vacation. Or maybe they will just run some old tires a little longer than they should to save money.”
In northern B.C. alone, 25 logging truck drivers have been killed in the past 10 years, with an average of five a year for the province according to the B.C. Central Interior Logging Association. Most of those deaths occur on forestry roads, but a growing number are taking place on the highway where there is a greater chance of injuries and deaths to the public. Hunt says that’s because the closure of mills and increase of raw log export has resulted in longer hauls down the highway.
Hunt says one way to fix the problem is to pay logging truck drivers by the hour instead of per load. There would be less pressure to move quickly, employers would be more conscious of the hours worked because of overtime laws, and drivers would get more time to rest and maintain their vehicles. However, given the fact that most logging truck drivers are contractors or work for contractors, Hunt knows it will be difficult to change the current system no matter how unpopular it is among the drivers themselves.
“It’s a huge public safety issue,” he said. “If truck drivers are doing 16, 17, 18 hours a day, and they’re out there with school buses, with families driving in their cars, and other commercial drivers, it’s massively huge.
“Some are suggesting now that it’s an ICBC problem. It’s not. It’s not the RCMP’s problem, it’s not the Ministry of Forests problem, it’s everybody’s. We have to look at is as a society — do we want people who are exhausted driving big logging trucks on our highways? I know I don’t.”
Recognizing the growing risk of logging trucks on the highway, B.C.’s newly appointed forest safety ombudsman called on the provincial government last January to introduce a certification program for log haulers to ensure that only trained, qualified people can get behind the wheel. But as a result of a shortage of drivers, the industry is now hiring people they would not have considered in the past.
“If the new truck drivers of the future are going to be coming directly off the street, we can’t be having them just through a basic Class 1 and find themselves on the top of a mountain the next day,” said ombudsman Roger Harris. “We need to make sure that, depending on the application of the vehicle they’re going to drive, they’re actually trained to the competency that gets them there.”
The B.C. Forest Safety Council has also introduced TruckSafe, a program that will include new regulations and operating guidelines for drivers. As well, they are implementing a Resource Road Act, which creates tougher standards for logging roads.
Also, the provincial Ministry of Transportation will spend $30 million to repair highways that have been impacted by the increased traffic that has stemmed from all the additional cutting that has resulted from the pine beetle epidemic.
For his part, Hunt is skeptical that hiring an ombudsman will have that much of an impact, given that the provincial government that employs Harris is also responsible for the changes to the industry that he says have compromised worker safety.
Roy Nagel, who is retiring as general manager of the Central Interior Logging Association, says logging truck drivers accident rates are lower than the general population, given the number of hours that drivers work and the number of trucks on the road. However, he says the trucking industry is in danger as drivers walk away from the job.
“It’s not that terribly busy, but drivers are swamped by orders. There’s a huge demographic bulb moving through the industry, and a lot of guys are now in their 50s and 60s and are leaving the business. They’ve had it. It’s been a challenge to recruit good people with the credentials to drive these rigs. Most companies are not equipped to train logging truck drivers,” he said.
“It’s one thing to take commercial driver training, if you’re driving the streets you can get a Class 1 license, but that doesn’t equip you to drive in the terrain where the logging happens, in the winter, in the conditions that these guys are driving in. We need a system to get better training for logging truck drivers.”
While the number of forest industry deaths was below average in 2006, Nagel believes that not all deaths and injuries are recorded properly. For example, a forest worker that gets into a car accident driving home from a long shift in the bush or behind the wheel of a logging truck is not counted as a forest industry death. He thinks it should be.
As for the hours that drivers are working, he said the CILA fought hard to bring in the 13-hour system with one day off per week. That’s less than other commercial drivers, while also giving logging truck drivers more time to service their vehicles. Only time will tell if the reduced hours have an impact.
“Some people told us they wanted to keep the old system going, 145 hours a week, no limits, but on the other side of the coin were workers who wanted much shorter hours. These are guys with families, or are worried about safety. We struck a balance,” he said. “Right or wrong, it’s less of a safety issue than it was a year ago.”
But in the Sea to Sky corridor accidents are still happening. In the past few months, the corridor has had two major incidents involving logging trucks. Two weeks ago a logging truck overturned north of the village, closing the road for several hours.
In January, a southbound truck tipped its load into a northbound lane just south of Whistler, spilling logs into the path of a fortunately empty Gray Line bus. The bus driver was seriously injured in the accident, and will have life-long injuries according to a Gray Line spokesman. The incident is still under investigation.
According to the Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Transportation, no records are kept of the number of logging trucks using Highway 99 except for the records held by the companies themselves.