Safety czar looking at the root of driver training

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PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – In one of his first major tasks since taking on the role of Forest Safety Ombudsman, Roger Harris is taking a hard look at driver training in the forest industry.

In March, the B.C. Forest Safety Council hired Harris to take on the newly-created position to enhance safety in the forest industry as an impartial, confidential agent.

“The industry felt it was necessary to move forward on a number of initiatives,” Harris told Truck West.

Harris has been involved in forestry since he was 18-years-old when he entered the industry as a logging camp dishwasher. He worked his way up through the harvesting sector before launching his own phase logging contract operation and fuel distribution business in 1985.

Harris then entered provincial politics in 2001, serving as Skeena MLA and Minister of State for Forestry Operations.

Safety in the forest industry is a personal matter for Harris, who nearly severed his right hand in a chain saw accident while working as a faller 20 years ago.

During his first initiative since taking the safety lead in B.C.’s forest industry, Harris will be doing a general review of training and certification in the industry. His main focus during the general review will be on fallers and drivers, which according to Harris are the two occupations where the most accidents are occurring.

In 2003, a faller certification program was introduced to the industry. In order to enter the field as a certified faller, potential workers must complete a 30-day course and then up to 180 days under the watchful eye of a certified supervisor.

In the driver’s seat however, potential log haulers only need to possess a Class 1 licence at this point.

“I’ll be looking at a number of areas,” noted Harris. “One is I want to look at all the groups that have a part in how we train drivers, but maybe don’t recognize their role.”

Specifically, Harris plans on looking at the industry’s funding partners and how those dollars are being spent.

“I’ll also be looking at other agencies involved like WorkSafe B.C.,” said Harris. “When they are retraining drivers, are they training someone for the sole purpose of training, just because there is a need, or are they finding the right people to become drivers?”

Then there is the driver certification itself. A classification number offers the licence holder a wide range of vehicles to drive. But rarely will a Class 1 holder find terrain as diverse as B.C.’s forest service roads.

“If you have a Class 5 licence you can drive anything from a Ford Focus to a single-axle fuel truck,” explained Harris. “With a Class 1 licence if you’ve been trained on the highway you could find yourself the next day on a 22% grade in a much heavier truck. Is that kind of broad range acceptable?”

The scope of the Forest Safety Ombudsman’s safety review is welcome news in the forest industry.

“Anytime you’re in an industry as diverse as forestry and can work to stabilize safety and reduce deaths and accidents it’s a good thing,” said Roy Nagel, general manager for the Central Interior Logging Association. “The concept of proper training and certification is a motherhood thing. Who could object? We all want to come home at the end of the day.”

The fact that most Class 1 licence training does not prepare holders to drive a logging truck on uneven ground, steep grades and mud, is not lost on many operators in B.C.’s Central Interior.

“Usually the Class 1 gets you in a cab with an experienced driver,” explained Nagel.

“There’s an expression, you can’t put a green guy out there. There’s a lot to learn: roads, radio protocol and wrapping. A lot of the fleet operators are taking that approach.”

Nagel also said some of the training institutes in B.C. are beginning to offer training specific to driving on the forest service roads.

“We need to get a handle on that quickly because they all need to get to the same standard,” he said. “Because they are commercial enterprises they have to offer competitive rates. We need to offer a unified compliance package to avoid corner cutting.”

Other problems adding to driver safety is an influx of drivers unfamiliar with the service roads during the peak season. In the Central Interior about 70% of the lumber the mills use is brought out of the bush in the span of 11 weeks.

During that time, Nagel says you can spot tractors from Alberta and Saskatchewan traversing the congested forest service roads, where the grades are quite different from anything found on the prairies.

As a personal preference, Nagel thinks a graduated Class 1 licence system would be a logical move.

“We need to have more training on that side for sure; the kind of machines, safety on the roads, loading and unloading, and radio protocol,” he explained. “Will we find huge things? I doubt it. This is more of a reality check, which is important. Any program whether government or private could use some fine-tuning.”

As one of the responsibilities of Forest Safety Ombudsman, Harris will take the time to hear the views of numerous groups.

“I don’t want to solve problems for someone that will create more problems for someone else,” Harris explained. “One thing I have heard from the trucking side is anything that will delay training or certification could create a further crunch in the driver shortage.”

Harris is hoping to have his report finished by the end of November when it will be released to the B.C. Forest Safety Council and to the general public.

“In B.C. recently, one thing that I view as a positive step is the public has taken a keen interest in the issue of forest safety,” added the ombudsman. “Everyone is taking an interest in turning around what was a dismal record.”

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