My take on silviculture comes from spending most of my working life in the sector, and I want to share a few concerns about what I see from the perspective of my current job in forest safety.
The Next Level of Safety Depends on Supervisors
Silviculture in Western Canada has made significant strides to improve safety - building awareness, conducting field research, developing training, and introducing safety management systems. The sector’s hard work has paid off in better safety performance, but we seem to have hit a wall now, facing persistent injury rates that won’t go down. To reach the next level of safety, silviculture needs to concentrate on its supervisors and the vital role they play.
In my experience, there is a direct relationship between quality of supervision and business outcomes. Ineffective supervisors mean poor production and injured workers, while actively engaged supervisors give us safe, productive crews. This is true whether we’re talking about leading crews of five to ten workers or running projects with four or five crews and 50 people.
We need to ensure supervisors provide solid, consistent leadership because typical operations tend to be located in remote geographic areas, and the sector is increasingly reliant on a younger, inexperienced, and transient labour force.
A major consideration in supervisors’ abilities to provide leadership is the increase in their responsibilities, particularly work demands that can compromise their ability to lead effectively. You know the mantra, "Do more with less." These days, what gets in the way of good supervision is the pressure of paperwork, or pixel-work. More and more, a supervisor’s day can start at 5 a.m. and run well into the night - the late hours taken over by completing reports and spreadsheets and then emailing them by satellite hook-up. The supervisor’s job is literally never done.
The resulting fatigue factor can be devastating. You can’t count on bone-tired supervisors to consistently make good decisions or communicate clearly with co-workers. This hampers production and quality, and leads to safety outages that entail higher risks for supervisors and the people they’re responsible for. I know. I have strong memories of situations when I wasn’t myself because of fatigue, and it made me a safety hazard.
Silviculture can’t afford risks like that. We need to recognize the downside of expanding supervisor responsibilities. It makes it harder to provide necessary leadership, to motivate people to perform, and to build a safety culture that enhances the business.
What needs to be done? Here are a few suggestions to help supervisors work better and safer.
• Simplify end-of-day reporting with electronic data collection that uses silviculture-specific software on handheld devices that can be carried in the field.
• Consider using injured workers on light or modified work programs to assist supervisors. This has significant benefits both for safety and business.
• Give supervisors silviculture-specific training that emphasizes operational requirements, leadership, and managing human factors. (A good resource is the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association [WSCA] at www.wscacourses.ca).
Action like this is needed to meet the growing demands and challenges faced by today’s silviculture supervisors. It’s essential to drive down the sector’s injury rates, and to keep production levels up.
Steve Mueller is the Director of Forest Worker Development Program at the BC Forest Safety Council. He joined the Council staff after 22 years as a silviculture contractor with more than 500 employees.