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Danger zone

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - Like most lumber haulers, owner/operator Gordon Miller was well aware of the inherent risks involved with pulling lumber across Canada.He was even more cognizant that the risk of...

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. – Like most lumber haulers, owner/operator Gordon Miller was well aware of the inherent risks involved with pulling lumber across Canada.

He was even more cognizant that the risk of running some of Western Canada’s mountain roads and slick highways paled in comparison to the dangers he routinely faced at some loading zones.

Talk around the W5 Transport headquarters in Edmonton invariably revolved around the appalling loading conditions faced by drivers at some lumber companies’ loading docks.

While some accidents experienced by the company’s drivers resulted in bruised egos rather than physical injuries – one driver was left hanging from his safety harness for 30 minutes after falling off his load with nobody around to help him down – the risk of serious injury or death often lurked in the back of each of their minds.

On Feb. 7, 2002, these worst fears were realized, and the 25-truck operation was shaken to its core by Miller’s tragic loading death.

After having his Super B flat deck trailer loaded up at the Lignum Lumber plant in Williams Lake, B.C., Miller was preparing for the long trek ahead. The popular Edmonton trucker was undoubtedly looking forward to returning home to his common-law wife, Janeen with whom he had just celebrated his 39th birthday the week before.

Before hitting the highway, Miller pulled up to the scales to ensure his weights were in order. After realizing he was overweight on one axle, the ever-compliant trucker returned to the loading zone so Lignum’s forklift operator could re-adjust the load. After the load was shifted forward, Miller monitored the air gauge on the opposite side of the trailer.

Meanwhile, the lumber began sliding on the ice and snow that had accumulated on the lifts.

From 100 yards away, a terrified onlooker screamed out, but his voice was lost amongst the whine of the machinery. Miller was unable to react in time and was crushed by a 20-foot lift of lumber, weighing between 6,000 and 7,000lb.

When tragedy strikes a trucking company, the usual range of emotions flood through its ranks. When it’s a relatively small trucking company such as W5 Transport, the reaction is compounded.

“Everybody knows everybody around here,” says Dick Whenham, the fleet’s owner. “Gordon was just a really nice guy who’d been with us for four years and never whined or complained – he was always in a good mood.”

While investigators agreed Miller’s death was the result of a freak accident, it has nonetheless renewed calls for improved loading zone safety for lumber haulers.

“There are lots of places in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan where it’s dark, dangerous, cold, windy and the guys are out there trying to tarp loads … it can be a real problem,” says Whenham.

While Whenham and his stable of drivers struggled for answers following the accident, it was somewhat disturbing to note that the tragedy occurred despite Miller taking all the proper safety precautions.

“He had his hard hat and safety equipment on, but that isn’t going to help you if something like that falls on you,” says Whenham.

Following the tragedy, Whenham drafted a list of safety precautions that may prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

The biggest priority, he insists, is clearing all snow and ice from the lumber units before loading.

Another priority is getting the lumber companies to attach the donnage to the units (donnage is the term given to the boards used to separate the units providing lift trucks with room to place their forks).

Whenham’s drivers have also been complaining to him about having to load and unload at loading docks that are situated on inclines or in dark, unsupervised areas.

He has also been appealing to lumber companies to avoid stacking lifts three high on the trailers.

Lastly, Whenham also calls upon drivers to do their part as well.

“The driver should remain near or in his truck while it’s being loaded and should the forklift operator lose sight of the driver for any reason, then the loading should cease immediately,” he says.

For its part, Lignum took a proactive approach to the issue following the accident. The company invited shippers and safety reps from lumber companies in the area to the accident scene to discuss what could be done to further improve safety.

The lumber companies were able to come up with some suggestions of their own, many of which were the same as Whenham’s.

“Everyone has agreed it was a freak accident and we don’t know what could have been done differently to prevent what happened, but coming out of it there were some recommendations going forward that might help in preventing something similar,” says Mike Skellett, Lignum’s manager of human resources.

He says a great deal of risk can be taken out of the driver’s job by relocating the truck’s weight gauges.

“We made a suggestion that the truck gauges be moved to the end of the trailer as opposed to the side,” says Skellett. “We don’t know what the mechanics of that are, but packages never fall off the ends of trailers, they fall off the sides.”

Another suggestion resulting from the brainstorming session would see truckers carry longer straps for the trailers.

Dave Rowe, the WCB’s industry specialist for forestry and trucking, says the most common incident is driver falls.

“Standing on the plastic used to wrap the lumber is like standing on marbles,” says Rowe.

However, a new plastic wrapping material manufactured by InterWrap (, is offering a solution to the age-old problem of driver falls. The plastic has a non-slip surface that allows for better traction when climbing around on the loads.

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