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New Forest Code Aims to Protect Loggers and the Environment


Press release | 23 September 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) - The International Labour Organization (ILO) has launched a new effort to improve safety, productivity and environmental practice in forest work, an occupation practiced by some three million people and considered as one of the most hazardous in the world.

A new Code of Practice on Safety and Health in Forest Work is to be discussed at ILO headquarters in Geneva on 23-30 September by some 30 experts from 10 major forest countries, including Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Gabon, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United States.

A significant element of the new Code is that it provides guidance to governments, employers and workers on making safety and health compatible with environmental protection and productivity in forestry.

“Overall the Code of Practice should help to create better conditions of work and higher productivity in the industry,” says Kari Tapiola, Deputy Director General of the ILO. “Safety and training must be made an integral part of company rules and management. Also, it is natural to merge safety and health and the environment together. Our hope is that this new Code of Practice will provide the means to do just that.”

Forest Work Hazards

Every year, thousands of forest workers die or are injured due to unsafe practices and the danger of working with falling trees. In addition, unsafe forestry has an environmental impact, causing more damage than necessary to remaining timber crops.

In practically all countries, forest work - along with mining and construction - is one of the most hazardous occupations. Accident frequencies and fatality rates are 2-3 times higher than those recorded in other industrial sectors. In the United States, for example, the probability of loggers getting killed on the job during a 25-year career is 1:20.

While the dangers of forestry work have gone largely unnoticed in media and public opinion, the forest industry has often been criticized for adverse environmental impact. Environmentalists, governments and employers are increasingly realizing that caring for forests and forest workers go together.

Bad practices for felling of trees and extracting timber for example cause substantial and unnecessary damage and increase the risk of accidents. Conversely, careful control of felling direction saves young growth and reduces damage to forest soils and water courses as well as protecting workers. Thus, a skilled and stable workforce is crucial to protecting forests and workers alike. As this insight takes hold, approaches are needed that will promote putting it into practice.

Even in expert hands, the chainsaw is one of the most potentially dangerous tools ever invented. While cuts and open wounds are the most common type of injury, chainsaws can also cause deafness and other physical damage from vibrations. Under a full load, a chainsaw produces a level of noise that may cause irreversible damage to unprotected ears after only 15 minutes. Experts say the chainsaw is likely to remain the key danger in the forests. Already used universally in developed countries, its use in developing countries is expected to increase as plantations account for an increasing share of the wood harvest.

In addition to hearing damage and vibration, physical degeneration from heavy work and exposure to extremes of climate force many forest workers to retire prematurely or to change jobs.

The New Code of Practice

The new Code draws on international experience in recent years which suggests that the traditional exclusive focus on technical aspects such as machine design and on the workplace was bound to fail. Forests are not factories with a stable working environment and highly standardized work processes. Making this difficult environment safer requires cooperation of all involved in the sector. The draft Code outlines a legal and institutional framework for safety in forestry through which governments, employers, workers, forest owners, labour inspectorates, machine manufacturers and others have specific roles to play. One of the most critical ingredients is a training system that will ensure access by the entire workforce, and lead to demonstrated and certified levels of skill.

The new Code covers all types of forest workers, including groups with higher than average accident frequencies like contractors, self-employed and forest farmers; emphasizes that safety starts at the top at the national level, but particularly in the enterprise and at the work site; outlines an enterprise safety management system that integrates safety into overall enterprise management; provides for training and mandatory skill certification as a key condition for safety in forestry; and offers detailed technical guidance on forest harvesting and some high risk operations like tree climbing, harvesting of windfall and forest-fire fighting which are intended to help countries and companies that have no forestry-specific regulations.

The Role of Management in Safety

The key to safety is the company, its management and the cooperation of its workforce. The strategy advocated by the draft Code is to perceive safety as a management task at the same level as other company objectives which should not be dealt with by a separate structure and its own set of rules, but fully incorporated into overall management.

Only with a safety management system, a skilled workforce and professional work planning and organization in place will technical measures have an impact and a safety culture be developed.

Once the ILO Governing Body adopts the Code, a campaign is expected to be launched to make the Code better known and to apply it. Safety is not a moral issue alone. In some countries accident insurance premiums are a major cost factor and losses in direct and indirect cost of accidents far exceed those of prevention programmes. Backed up with research evidence, one of the arguments will be that “safety makes dollars and sense”.