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Forest Worker Safety Network

fwsn 2008


Sawmill Cuts Risk Down to Size
The Forests Around Us: Walking Loggers Becoming Rare Logging Video Feature Pick

fwsn 2008

Vaagen Bros. Midway Sawmill Log Deck - Photo Credit: LSJ Magazine

Dramatic turnarounds are nothing new for a small sawmill in the West Kootenays.

By Gord Woodward - WorkSafeBC Magazine - September/October Issue

After resurrecting itself as a viable business at the heart of a small town, and performing a 180-degree turn on its combustible dust safety procedures, Vaagen Fibre Canada mill has cut through its obstacles like a Hew Saw through timber.

Some might say those obstacles were the size of mighty redwoods. First, the family-owned operation had to rescue the mill in Midway, B.C., from bankruptcy. The facility had sat empty for about three years before Vaagen leased it in 2010, to the relief of the town's 600-plus residents, some of whom invested in the revival. Then, the 80-employee company had to transform outdated safety processes at the aging mill to minimize the risk of dust.

Just a few short months later, the complete overhaul now serves as a model for other employers.

"This is a firm that not only embraced the requirements, but adopted them as their way of doing business," says Steve Tye, an occupational hygiene officer who served on WorkSafeBC's combustible dust team. "It's because they saw the value in making those changes."

Prince George-based WorkSafeBC regional prevention manager Barry Nakahara says safety operations at Vaagen Fibre are much improved. "It's a pleasant success story," he says.

Vaagen Bros. Midway Sawmill HewSaw - Photo Credit: Wood Business Magazine

That story started with the launch of the combustible dust sustainable compliance initiative last November. The Vaagen mill immediately faced significant challenges. General manager Randy Erdman admits it was badly out of step with occupational health and safety regulations.

"A lot of people didn't really comprehend what those rules meant on the floor," he says. The result? Two work stoppage orders. Both were quickly rectified, but Erdman was determined to clean up the mill's act — literally.

Cleaning critical to mill's health
Containing dust is "as important as running the mill itself," Erdman says. He considers his clean-up crew — four full-timers — to be as vital as his trimmer operators. They patrol the mill every shift, on the lookout for wood dust that can build up on everything from handrails to overhead beams: wood chips from the Hew Saw, he explains, can fly 7-to-10 metres in the air as the saw cleaves up to 500,000 board feet of wood per day.

The changes didn't stop there. Because of unforeseen or unexpected events, employers who rely heavily on manual clean-up struggle to comply. Their challenges can include production increases, staff absences, and re-deployment of personnel, according to a recent WorkSafeBC summary of its sawmill compliance initiative.

So Vaagen chose the recommended path: investing in engineering controls — ventilation extraction systems, containment, and improved conveyor transfer processes — to lessen the amount of necessary dust clean-up.

As part of what Tye calls the mill's "considerable commitment" to compliance, the company installed sheeting around various waste conveyors and transfer points; improved containment and removal of the Hew Saw dusts; isolated and sealed the saw's motor control centre room; and, sealed numerous holes in the mill structure. It also bought sonic fans to control dust in the Hew Saw area.

And they did all of these upgrades in partnership with WorkSafeBC. "A lot of credit goes to the officers," who had to make hard decisions during inspections, while providing guidance and education to remedy the problems, Nakahara says. "They did a heck of a job."

Mill goes the extra mile
David Bedard, an occupational safety officer for the Nelson region who worked closely with the mill, eagerly shares the laurels. "The employer was very motivated to make changes and our prevention officers wanted to see them succeed."

From left to right: Safety Coordinator Dale Jackson and Vaagen Fibre Canada GM Randy Erdman and WorkSafeBC OSO David Bedard - Photo Credit: WorkSafeBC Magazine

Erdman had his own measure of success: "My expectation was that we would become the role model for others to follow."

The company's drive to go beyond the bare minimum meant Vaagen Fibre even exceeded some of the compliance guidelines. For example, WorkSafeBC mandated one dust inspection per day, yet, Erdman ordered two. And while the rules required a weekly review of the reports, he instructed his workers to provide solutions to safety problems in their paperwork as well.

"This keeps the awareness up. This keeps it in our face. That's the only way it won't regress," Erdman says.

Bedard is convinced that money spent on control measures by employers like Vaagen will be recovered in cost savings, thanks to reduced cleaning expenses. Erdman says the financial return on the mill's investment will be difficult to determine, but cites one benefit that may be priceless. "People see that you care. I think, over time, it ups their ownership of what goes on in the workplace."

That's the kind of thinking that has driven both turnarounds at Midway. Area residents took ownership by investing in a local sawmill that had been out of operation for years, and Vaagen took ownership of the need to provide a safer environment for workers.

Today, they're all reaping the benefits. And that's not at all surprising to Bedard. "When an employer and WorkSafeBC work together, a lot of good things can happen.” 

Courtesy of WorkSafeBC Magazine - September/October 2014 Issue.

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Former Forest Magazine Columnist Bill Moore looks at men who walk the bush in his column from November 1974

BC Lumberman Columnist Bill Moore The British Columbia Lumberman Magazine
November 1974

We've come a long way in the modernization of logging equipment in this forest around us.

The big yellow, purple and polka-dotted machines that our manufacturers have invented for us have undoubtedly taken much of the muscle fatigue from many of the jobs our loggers used to handle in days gone by.

I think back on the heavy cable men used to wrestle with, or the long handsaws that were pushed and pulled through the big trees to fall rock hard and buck. There was also the heavy pike pole work in booming before the advent of highly mobile boom-dozer boats. The rigging up of the old wooden spar trees, the hand tong work of loading logs on trucks, and the lifting and exertion of pole cutters, tie cutters, and pulp stackers all contributed to a physical exertion that was exhaustion in years gone by.

And so it went until today with the introduction of mechanical log loaders, mobile steel spar trees, feller-bunchers, grapples, snorkels and a most curious lot of rig-a-ma-jigs that ease the manpower burden in most jobs. The day of the mechanical, hydraulic assisted logger is here — and has undoubtedly helped our safety factor too. But there are still walking loggers in our woods and I would like to address these remarks to those men who still have to exert; still have to lift and strain; and still have to walk for eight hours a day in pursuit of their jobs.

On the coast of B.C. in the heavy timbered logging country there is a scarcity of good "walking loggers." Chokermen, rigging slingers, hook-tenders and chasers are walking loggers. Power saw operators, cat-hookers and swampers are also jobs that require a maximum of energy and foot work. Ask any camp manager today if he has enough well-trained men in the above categories and my guess is the answer will be nearly 100 per cent negative.

Click to Listen - Where There Walks a Logger courtesy of Buzz Martin

Well, where have they gone? Why aren't there replacements, and what is the industry to do about it? It's fine to think we have all these mechanical marvels running around in our woods doing so much of the old time muscle work. But we have not solved the problem completely and our woods still require the above named categories of loggers to do what loggers have always done — "walk the bush."

True, the advent of grapple yarding has somewhat eased the need for some walking loggers, but most high-lead sides on our coast are still operating on the older methods of a rigging crew to hook onto the logs laying in the woods. And it is really doubtful if the grapple can ever completely oust the chokerman from his job. Terrain, snow, and distance will call for a rigging crew for many years to come, even though the grapple yarding system may become more refined.


The day in, day out work of a rigging crew made up of hooktender, rigging slinger, chokerman and chaser is not much easier now than it was years ago, maybe even tougher. Possibly the cable sizes may be a bit smaller — from inch and a quarter to one inch or inch and an eighth now. But the speed of the mobile yarders is much faster than in older days so there are that many more logs to be hooked. Also yarding distances have tended to shorten in length with the improvement in road building equipment. And, if anything, the hills are steeper now than they were when only the valley bottoms were being logged.

So it would seem that the rigging crew's work load has been speeded up over the years while the going gets tougher for them. This would not tend to encourage most young men to stay with such jobs, and when they look at truck drivers with power steering and loading operators with hydraulic levers, there is reason to see envy in their eyes.

The chokerman or "chokie" is the first job most young men can take on in a logging camp these days. It is the so-called unskilled job of the rigging crew — and yet it is a dangerous nimble footed job. Lucky is the young man who first learns to set chokers at the Logger's School in Nanaimo or at least have a good intelligent rigging slinger to watch over him on his first job. The rate of turnover in this one category is our highest today in the woods. It just does not lend itself to ideals of owning one's own forest empire.


The high turnover causes a definite drop in production, so much so that many firms have had to close down logging sides all over the coast this spring and summer due to lack of qualified rigging crews. The depressed market conditions of lumber may relieve the immediate problem of enough good men for rigging crews, but as the markets improve the shortage of men will again be more noticeable than ever. Therefore now would seem to be the time to face he problem and make sure that when the time comes our logging sites will not lay idle due to a lack of skilled men. What to do to solve the problem?

First off, are we giving enough incentive to rigging men to be satisfied in their work and stay on the job? Many good hooktenders have moved over to the falling category where there is more money and shorter hours. We seem to have enough fallers now and it is no doubt due to the fact that with the advent of day rate two years ago the ranks of the fallers have been swelled by men from other categories. Possibly we should take a whole new look at the trade of rigging men and revise the category.

Let's just say we classified the individual jobs of hook-tending, rigging slinger, chaser and chokerman, who make up the rigging crew, into the tradesman type of category we use for mechanics, welders and shop people. A hooktender first class would have to prove five years of work in his category to apply for that status. His wage would be the highest. Then a hooktender second class would apply where the man served from two to five years. Below that would be the hooktender apprentice at the present rate of hooktender pay.

Rigging slinger would necessitate the real problem of our "rigging crews." Possibly it is time these categories of men were looked at and some attention given to their future. It just could be that our people in higher places in union and management have forgotten what it is like to "walk the bush" as our rigging crews do every day in rain, snow and heat. It goes without saying that we need these men for some years to come — so maybe it's time to remember their status as men who contribute to the forest dollar in this forest around us.

Let's hear it for the "chokie" boys. And remember you chokies...

Keep out of the bight,
Bill Moore

Click here to view this November 1974 British Columbia Lumberman article.

Bill Moore – logging contractor, forest industry statesman, community leader, health & safety advocate – was a prolific columnist who wrote about the challenges the west coast logging industry in many logging magazines including The British Columbia Lumberman and The Truck Logger. revisits some of Bill Moore's health and safety articles in an effort to both entertain and draw some perspective on how far we have come in addressing workers health and safety concerns over the last 30 years.
For additional background information on WD Moore Logging Ltd., visit their website at:


FWSN Media Room

The Forest Worker Safety Network regularly reviews logging videos on The video below is our feature pick for this month. Click the video screen if you wish to enlarge the video for viewing on in new browser window on the website.  [back to top]

On the Barge: Moving a Remote Logging Show

Vancouver Island's McCurdy Creek, located in the vicinity of Gold River, has been the source of timber for many years. However, sustained timber harvesting has not been continuous and as a result, the logging equipment has to be barged in and out of the McCurdy Creek base camp at intervals. This video offers a glimpse into what happens when a simple grapple yarding show - Grapple Yarder, Mobile Backspar Excavator, Log Loader, Crew Truck, and a couple of off-road Logging Trucks - is loaded and barged back to Gold River. Video courtesy of Paul Laviolette - Plummy Video.

Something to say about this video? Email us at:


Safe Workplaces... Our Right, Our Responsibility

A USW Health & Safety Production - Click to view.
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FWSN Tailgate Talk

Safe Workplaces... Our Right, Our Responsibility

Day of Mourning - April 28th

Forest Worker Safety Network

The Forest Workers Safety Network (FWSN) is an initiative of United Steelworkers (USW) District 3, which represents over 20,000 forest workers in British Columbia.

In light of rising forest industry fatalities and injuries, the FWSN has been formed as a response to a demand for a worker-focused information and networking system. The FWSN is available to all BC forest workers, at no cost, whether or not they are members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The FWSN is initiating its activities by disseminating information developed for BC Coastal loggers and woodlands employees, from stump to dump and beyond. We are also collecting information on safety issues in the sector and on urgent and pressing issues that groups of workers and individuals face. We provide general health and safety information and information on the USW’s ongoing efforts to stop needless fatalities and injuries.

There will be regular communications for all workers who sign up.

Join the Forest Workers Safety Network today!  [top]

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Forest Workers Safety Network - 2009