September 18, 2018
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Fewer loggers are dying in the Maine woods, but health risks mount as profession grows sedentary

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
In this photo from July 2015, Logger Terry Theriault exits his delimber while working to in the field off the Golden Road near Millinocket. A new study aims to reduce dangers and health risks associated with Maine's logging industry.
By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Updated:

For Mainers who work in the woods, injuries and health risks are a fact of life.

“You can twist an ankle or be struck by something, get hit by falling branches or a dead tree or have a limb come back and smash you in the face. It’s just the nature of the beast,” said logger Erik Carlson, 47, of Edgecomb. “To think you’re not going to come home once in a while bruised and bleeding is just ridiculous.”

Carlson has worked in the woods for more than 20 years, both as a consulting forester and a self-employed logger. He’s what is known as a “conventional logger,” meaning he harvests trees the old-fashioned way, with a chainsaw and a skidder. That exposes him to more immediate dangers than a “mechanical logger” who operates a feller-buncher or other mechanized equipment from inside a closed cab.

“Mechanized [logging] is exponentially safer,” Carlson said, waiting while his skidder warmed up on a recent frosty morning. “But on the other hand, you’re just sitting there all day. You don’t get any more exercise than a truck driver.”

That sets mechanical loggers up for obesity and associated illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as for back injuries, muscle sprains and other problems linked to lack of strength, flexibility and muscle tone.

Logging remains the nation’s deadliest profession, with the risks it poses to life and limb well established. Now, a new study aims to document not only the acute injuries suffered by loggers but also the less obvious, chronic health risks it poses. By following approximately 300 Maine loggers over five years, researchers hope to develop strategies to protect the safety and health of individual loggers and of the logging workforce, a critical element of Maine’s rural economy.

Danger in the forest

In 2015, there were about 2,200 loggers working in the Maine woods, with an average annual wage of about $45,000, according to data from the Maine Department of Labor. From solo independent contractors like Carlson to teams of loggers directly employed by timber or land-management companies, the work attracts hardy Mainers with an independent streak and a taste for the great outdoors. It also forms the basis of the forest products economy in some of Maine’s most sparsely settled areas, with an estimated $8.5 billion impact in 2016 alone.

But traditionally, logging has been and remains among the most hazardous of occupations. Though changes in recent years have increased worker safety and health, logging still has the highest work-related fatality rate of any industry in the U.S., according to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those data show that U.S. loggers suffered fatal injuries at a rate of 135.9 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2016, compared with 86 deaths per 100,000 workers in the fishing industry, the next highest rate. Truck drivers suffered the highest real number of fatalities, but at a rate of just 24.7 fatalities per 100,000. Across all civilian occupations, the workplace fatality rate was just 3.6 deaths per 100,000.

In Maine, 18 loggers died from work-related injuries between 2003 and 2016, according to Department of Labor records.

Logging’s high fatality rate is one reason researcher Erika Scott of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, or NEC, based in New York state, is launching a 5-year study aimed at identifying health and safety issues among Maine loggers.

Scott’s interest in occupational safety is also rooted in personal experience. When she was younger, a close family member was killed in a workplace accident.

“You should be able to go to work in the morning and come home in the evening no worse for wear,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Though logging fatalities and time-lost injuries must be reported, Scott pointed out, the incidence of less serious accidents, physical trauma over time and chronic disease related to logging are not well documented.

NEC studies occupational health issues throughout the Northeast, but logging’s key role in Maine’s rural economy persuaded Scott to focus her research here, along with the need to recruit and retain a younger workforce.

“You really have to have a healthy [logging] workforce that’s able to work for decades,” she said.

Working with timber companies, industry trade organizations and other groups, Scott aims to recruit some 300 Maine loggers to her study. Participation includes a one-time physical exam and quarterly health surveys, with the incentive of gift cards to complete the five years. All individual information will be kept confidential, she stressed, with only aggregated data used to identify important health and safety risks and their potential solutions.

Part of the solution

Dana Doran, executive director of the industry group Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said the mechanization of timber harvesting has driven a steep decline in acute injuries and fatalities since the mid-1990s. But now, he said, more loggers develop heart disease, diabetes, soft-tissue injuries and other conditions related to inactivity and repetitive motion.

Since these “lifestyle” conditions are not tracked in the same way as acute injuries and fatalities, Doran said, it’s been hard to measure their impact on the industry or devise strategies to improve logger health.

“That’s the real value of this study,” he said.

Doran is working with logging contractors to recruit participants for the NEC study, aiming to use the data it generates to help develop industry health and wellness programs in the future.

Among Scott’s other collaborators is Michael St. Peter, director of the Jackman-based program Certified Logging Professional. Born and raised in northern Aroostook County, St. Peter has trained loggers for nearly 40 years in techniques to protect their safety and health.

St. Peter said his program has helped reduce the rate of disabling logging injuries in Maine, which declined from 93 reported incidents in 2012 to 67 in 2016, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That’s a clear benefit to loggers and their families, he said, but also benefits employers and helps holds down the cost of workers compensation insurance.

“We address the profession as a whole,” St. Peter said. “Health and safety training complements environmental stewardship and business practices.”

More than 6,500 loggers have been certified since the program began in 1991.

St. Peter is optimistic Maine loggers will want to take part in Scott’s study.

“Some may feel the questions are a little intrusive,” he said. “But it’s to any individual or company’s advantage to have a safe and healthy work environment.”

Certified logger Carlson agrees. Working in the Maine woods is getting safer all the time, and that’s good for the industry as well as for people like him, who prefer logging over any other way of life.

“Logging is the worst addiction I’ll ever have,” Carlson said. “It gets into your blood. Everyone who’s ever been in it goes back to it eventually.”

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