Roger Harris knows from personal experience the importance of safety in the forest industry.
He has witnessed the impact that injuries and fatalities can have on workers and their families, starting with his own.
In 1986, while working as a falling contractor, his right hand was nearly severed when his chain saw kicked back. His brother-in-law was killed in a forestry accident at age 18.
Those experiences, combined with his varied career in the forest industry – he has been everything from a logging camp dishwasher to a phase logging contractor – and position as a former MLA (Skeena Riding), make Harris an ideal fit as the B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman.
He has served as ombudsman since the role was created in 2006 by the B.C. Forest Safety Council. He has since published a number of provincial reviews along with recommendations for improving safety within the sector.
He was in Vernon recently to discuss the current situation in the forest industry and the role his office plays in ensuring safety remains a priority. The talk was hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce at the Schubert Centre.
While it may no longer be the top industry in the province, Harris said forestry is something that affects pretty much everyone living in it.
“This is an industry that, regardless of everything else, is still in every community in B.C.,” said Harris. “It may not be the No. 1 industry on any given day, but it’s important to all of us.”
Harris began his forestry career washing dishes in Haida Gwaii as an 18-year-old in 1972. He said there was a big fallers’ strike that year. The workers were voicing concerns over safety issues, and rightfully so. A total of 62 men died in B.C.’s woods that year.
Harris pointed to a graph depicting the year-by-year fatalities in the industry. He is thankful to see the curve moving downwards, but said he won’t be happy until the annual figure is zero.
The two most dangerous jobs continue to be falling and truck driving.
The most recent statistic in 2012 saw 12 people die. There have been just two fatalities so far in 2014.
Harris noted one thing the fatalities chart doesn’t account for is the number of forestry workers who are maimed or permanently disabled every year. Whereas the number of deaths has decreased, he said the number of injuries has actually risen due to a combination of advancing medical care and improved evacuation times.
Harris can attest to that. When he injured his hand, he was on a hospital operating table within hours, and they were able to sew his hand back together. He has no feeling in his fingers, but his hand appears remarkably intact.
But rather than introduce rules and regulations that might hinder industry, Harris would rather see what he refers to as “a change in culture.”
“People always have a view that you can legislate safety,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of evidence to support that. That’s people looking for simple solutions to complex problems.”
Harris has already seen a massive shift in forestry workers’ attitudes from the fearless loggers of the ‘70s.
“There was a bravado about this industry that said: ‘I’m tough.’”
Harris himself shared that mentality. As the most senior faller in his crew back in the day, he would be the one left to fall the most dangerous trees as they made their way through a cutblock. Now, he just shakes his head, wondering why he placed that extra risk upon himself in an already-hazardous job.
The outlook of logging companies is also changing for the better, said Harris. Gone is the notion that safety concerns are not only costly, but also a hindrance to productivity. Harris said quite the opposite is true.
“The industry has come around to understand that being safe is a smart business decision,” he said.