Occupational Research Agenda for Northwest Forestlands

Richard Fenske
University of Washington Department of Environmental Health


UNDERSTANDING HOW ECONOMIC AND POLICY FACTORS INFLUENCE the forest industry is vital to developing a clear picture of the safety and health issues facing workers in the woods. This category is composed of three priority areas: government policy, industry trends, and top level commitment, which provide the foundation for occupational safety and health in the forest industry. This section of the Agenda is a call for research as well as for support from management and policy makers.


Sound public policy decisions about the forest industry require an understanding of the best science and a synthesis of ecological health, human health, and economic values. Both federal and state policies have had a tremendous influence on the economy and practices of the forest industry, which in turn, affect the safety and health of foresters and loggers. One participant detailed the hazards associated with the selective cutting policies enforced on US Forest Service lands in Alaska. He noted that selective harvesting on a site with overripe and decayed trees (as is common in Alaska), places fallers and rigging workers in serious jeopardy.



Both federal and state policies have had a tremendous influence on the economy and practices of the forest industry. Every worker in this industry has been personally touched by two types of legislation and regulation, those directed at improving ecological health and those aimed at improving the safety and health. Initiatives for forest health and worker health are often developed in isolation from one another and there can be conflicts in regulations, such that a task cannot meet the demands of an ecological regulation and be done safely.

Participants repeatedly identified a lack of communication between land management professionals, policymakers and forest managers, and the limited logging safety training and awareness among federal and state land management staff. Frequently, participants felt that miscommunication and misunderstandings were the basis for disagreement among loggers, purchasers, and land managers. Participants felt a need for greater recognition that timber harvesting is now conducted on a multi-employer worksite. Also, they called for more practical standards for safety and health regulations and improved enforcement of existing regulations. Participants also expressed a need for greater access to consultation and training staff.


  • Investigate why the logging industry is not treated as a multi-employer work site
  • Evaluate the regulatory impacts of Washington state's new ergonomic rule
  • Implement safety training and awareness for all involved in timber sales
  • Train land managers on the health and safety considerations and regulations that loggers face

Green K. Seeking Safety in a Dangerous World: A Risk Reduction Framework for Policy-makers. Los Angeles, CA: Reason Public Policy Institute, Reason Foundation, 1999.

Institute of Forest Resources. Forest Policy: Ready for Renaissance. University of Washington, College of Forest Resources, 1998. Online:https://digital.lib.washington.edu/dspace/handle/1773/2033

American Forest & Paper Association. Legislation & Policy. Online: Legislation & Policy

The American Society of Safety Engineers: Government Affairs. Online: http://www.asse.org/professionalaffairs/.

OHSA. Logging Technical Advisor. Online: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/logging/userguide/scope_application/scope_application.html.

Society of American Forestry homepage: http://www.safnet.org/.

USDA Forest Service hompage: http://www.fs.fed.us/.

United States General Accounting Office. Search GAO Archives: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/databases.html.


Over the past twenty years, the forest industry has experienced dramatic changes affecting employment, silvicultural approaches, and logging operations. Northwest constituents felt that some of the trends affecting the forest industry contribute to a worker’s risk for injury and illness. These changes were acknowledged by a member of the industry noting that “(T)here is new technology and machinery that will eventually reduce most of the hazards. There will still be problems with steep ground [and] we will have to address existing and potential hazards in new machinery [with] more slips and falls, entanglement in machinery, communication problems between machines, [and] ergonomic issues for operators.”

[NIOSH NORA: Emerging Technologies, Social and Economic Consequences of Workplace Illness and Injury, Special Populations at Risk]


Increased public interest in sustainability and ecological concerns has affected land-use policies and resulted in the decline of available timber, and changes in silvicultural and logging practices. The decrease in timber supply has caused drastic cuts in employment and company shutdowns. In turn, this same trend has created new employment opportunities in ecological restoration. The industry has also seen a decrease of loggers employed directly by land management companies and an increasing number of contract logging companies.

Another recent trend is the increased mechanization of operations in the lower Northwest. This development may affect safety in both positive and negative ways, and may reduce employment, especially in labor-intensive tasks. Timber harvesting has a long history of technical and operational changes. With each innovation (e.g., chain saw, high-line logging, helicopter logging) the hazards faced by workers have changed.

The industry also struggles with recruitment and retention of a well-qualified workforce because of competing job opportunities, aging workers, public perception of the industry, and low wages. The changing workforce has also seen the increase of minorities, especially Hispanic workers. In the past, these employees worked primarily in tree planting and tree nurseries. In recent times, their presence has expanded throughout the forest industry in more job sectors and as business owners.

Participants highlighted the following issues as major contributors to forestland workers’ safety and health: low wages, lack of qualified and skilled workforce, public perception of industry, special populations (in particular Hispanics and the older workforce), political and economic climate, changes in methods and technology, long hours (including commute) and small diameter trees.

  • Examine difference in hazards between virgin and second-growth forests
  • Analyze whether frequency and severity of injury is related to pay structure (hourly vs. piecework)
  • Investigate the correlation between physical fitness and injuries on the job
  • Identify demographic changes in the workforce, particularly with Hispanic populations
  • Document existing knowledge and special skills of older, possibly migrant or European workforce
  • Demonstrate how changes in work practices affect productivity
  • Determine the impact of small diameter trees on safety
  • Train all new workers on equipment operation and general safety
  • Implement pre-employment job skills testing
  • Partner new workers with experienced workers
  • Provide conditioning programs for new workers or those entering jobs involving strenuous work
  • Translate materials into appropriate Spanish dialects
  • Scale materials to appropriate literacy levels, particularly for non-English-speaking workers

Garland J. Contractors in forest harvesting and silviculture: Oregon and the United States. In: Contract Labour: Looking at Issues. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, 1997.

Kamimura G, Bodeutsch G, Gayton C. Studies in Industry and Employment: Labor and Skill Shortages in Washington. Washington State Employment Security, 1979.

Oregon Employment Department. Hispanics in Oregon’s Workforce. State of Oregon Employment Department RS PUB 124 (10-98), 1998.

Personick M, Mindau JA. Characteristics of Older Workers’ Injuries. Fatal Workplace Injuries in 1993: A Collection of Data Analysis. Report 89. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1995.

Center for International Trade in Forest Products. University of Washington, College of Forest Resources homepage: http://www.cintrafor.org/.

University of Washington, College of Forest Resources. Rural Technology Initiative. Online: http://www.ruraltech.org/.

Temperate Forest Foundation homepage: http://www.forestinfo.org/.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Forestry, Conservation, and Logging Occupations. Online: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos178.htm.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Conservation Scientists and Foresters. Online: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos048.htm.

WA Employment Security Division. Industry Profiles: Lumber & Wood Products. Online: http://www.wa.gov/esd/lmea/sprepts/indprof/lumber.htm. and Forestry: http://www.wa.gov/ esd/lmea/sprepts/indprof/forestry.htm.


The management of any organization (industry or agency) contributes to the foundation of a safety culture. Top level commitment can ensure that employee safety and health is more than a peripheral program through its integration into the overall management system. As one industry leader summarized, “We’ve tried to develop a clear message that safety has to be a value, nothing is worth getting hurt, and that we can make improvements in productivity in other ways.” Another industry representative reinforced this point, “I think the number one priority is to make safety one of the things we do. We are in a global economy and can’t afford to do anything that will lower our cost-effectiveness. Keeping healthy workers on the job is part of cost-effectiveness.”



The forest industry has made important advances nationwide to improve safety and health for its workers, and many Northwest industry leaders have demonstrated a strong commitment to this change. This topic, Top Level Commitment, was frequently raised by participants, and became one of the primary areas for discussion. Participants emphasized that top management of any organization, industry, or agency, has the authority and leadership capabilities to integrate safety and health into the overall management processes. Top administrators of an organization can have a profound effect on worker safety and health. As one participant noted, “[In] the first year, people in the field don’t have the capacity to change their work. You can tell them about the hazards associated with their jobs, [but it is] not simple to change. If you convince a manager that safety is a management responsibility, then employees concerned about a hazard have a recourse, as the manager has the capacity to change. Management commitment is an important factor in safety rates.”

Participants spent significant time describing their concerns and suggestions. Issues identified included top management safety awareness, forestry stakeholder cooperation and communication, clear accountability for safety, financial incentives for safety, leadership, incident investigation and reporting, and recognizing excessive demands for productivity as an injury risk factor. These issues often extended beyond occupational safety and health research, and resulted in some interesting suggestions that may be useful to industry employers and associations. We have included the category “Suggestion Box,” which lists the ideas that did not fall specifically in the categories of research or training.

  • Develop methods for building safety into business operations and accounting systems
  • Establish method to collect “near-miss” information
  • Investigate which accidents were attributable to contract language vs. environmental factors
  • Examine how to overcome barriers to safety (such as fear of repercussions and time burden) through incentives, insurance breaks, and regulatory relief
  • Develop a common template for employers to assist in data collection, analyses, and training
  • Investigate the correlation of safe practices with productivity levels
  • Assess the cost effectiveness of training
  • Investigate how safety concerns can be integrated with management decisions, (such as how a stand is harvested, what techniques are used, and who is responsible for safety on-site)
  • Identify most effective communication techniques
  • Focus on in-house training-need to teach preventive vs. reactionary measures
  • Ensure training for all new employees
  • Invest in top-level trainers
  • Conduct leadership training
  • Support better accident investigation training for agencies and contractor associations
  • Convince management that safety awareness is part of their job and to use this knowledge to support employees
  • Design management safety training to include worker involvement
  • Develop internet-based safety and health training for managers
  • Ensure that worker safety is given equal consideration with environmental safety
  • Identify and highlight "best cases"
  • Partner business with best companies for mentoring and technical assistance
  • Establish coalition with mandate to resolve key safety issues
  • Gather industry-wide support, including Labor and Industries, landowners, banks, state government, environmental and conservation groups, and loggers
  • Make time and resources available for safety
  • Develop written commitment to company safety
  • Conduct a leadership forum on safety
  • Make agencies accountable for contractors operating on public lands
  • Assure agreement between contract language and policies
  • Improve working relationship between agencies and timber companies
  • Ensure that the plan and policies for harvest are "doable" and that cutting safely is possible
  • Increase involvement and accountability of landowner
  • Require that safety policies be incorporated into contracts
  • Publish available information on safety violations
  • Develop a checklist for contractors to verify that employees have been trained-including content, time, and mode of training
  • Develop incentives for proactive safety behavior and not only low accident rates
  • Identify communication barriers
  • Encourage communication through suggestion boxes, tailgate sessions, safety committees and industry meetings
  • Ensure top management has open door policy for all workers
  • Make safety meeting minutes widely available 47
  • Ensure safety manager has authority equal to other managers
  • Increase interaction with safety specialists before policies are made
  • Encourage industry-wide improvement of safety related accident reporting and use information to increase accountability for safety
  • Determine how to improve communication and safety responsibility between contractor and landowner
  • Design a better way of sharing information between regions, organizations, etc.
  • Improve safety communication between companies

American Industrial Hygiene Association. Occupational Health and Safety Management System Performance Measurement: A Universal Assessment Instrument, 1999. Online: http://www.aiha.org.

British Standards Institute. Guide to Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.
BS8800. 1996. Online: http://www.bsi-global.com.

British Standards Institute. Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems, Specifications. OHSAS 18001. 1999. Online: http://www.bsi-global.com.

Health & Safety Executive. Successful Health and Safety Management, 2nd Ed. HSG65. 1997. Online: http://www.hse.gov.uk/.

Reisinger T, Sluss R, Shaffer R. Managerial and operational characteristics of “safety successful” logging contractors. Forest Prod J 44(4):72- 78, (1994).

Morris S, Camp J, Brooner B. Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation Initiative. Achieving a Safe and Healthful Workplace: Perspectives from Management, Labor and Government in Washington State. University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, 1998.

Victorian WorkCover Authority. Safety Map– Auditing Health and Safety Management Systems. Australia, 1994. Online: http://www.workcover.vic.gov.au/vwa/ projects.nsf/all/safetymap.

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