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BC firm targets sawmill worker health, well-being West Fraser Mills has its own full-time, in-house doctor, a first in BC's lumber and pulp industry. 

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use. 

West Fraser Mills Ltd. has earned a reputation as a successful innovator in the wood products industry. Less well known is the pioneering, holistic approach it's taken toward keeping its employees healthy. 

West Fraser Mills Ltd. has its own full-time, in-house medical doctor, a first in BC's lumber and pulp industry. 

Dr. George Smith regularly visits company divisions in BC and Alberta, offering West Fraser's approximately 5,500 employees a wide range of services. He helps with medical problems, lifestyle issues, counselling and stress management. He endeavours to make the work place a healthier and more pleasant one for employees and a more productive one for the employer. 

November images "I like to think I'm an employee resource person, an employee benefit if you like," explains Dr. Smith. "I have to be here as an employee advocate and maintain that credibility with the employee. I think we achieve that. And there are paybacks for employee and employer." 

West Fraser has BC divisions in Williams Lake, Quesnel, Fraser Lake, Smithers, Terrace. Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Chetwynd and a Vancouver office. The company's Alberta business units are in Slave Lake and Whitecourt. 

Dr. Smith has been West Fraser's physician for more than eight years. He was a general practitioner in Quesnel for 10 prior years. He remains based in Quesnel and retains his hospital privileges and duties at the G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital. "It helps to keep my skills up and keeps me from being isolated from the rest of the medical community." 

He recalls that the change in professional lifestyle offered by West Fraser's one-of-a-kind job sounded like a challenge. It still is. "It's totally different. There was no job description when I came. I just set about doing it. The job has evolved a lot over the years." 

He thinks employees consult him about medical problems partly because patients are being pushed through the door every five minutes. "Accessibility is most important. You can give employees as much time as they need. I like to think we have a relaxed atmosphere and that helps too." 

Dr. Smith's GP experience in stress management counselling has been increasingly in demand. "It means we can offer help on a personal level." Stress assumes many guises. In the Terrace division, for example, employees have endured plant shutdowns and face an uncertain future until spiralling log harvesting costs along with large volumes of poor-quality timber receive provincial government attention. 

"It seems to work well having the employee assistance program channelled through me. It provides the ability to use the counselling service best suited to the person and the situation," he explains. 

On the job site, repetitive strain injuries are being surveyed in West Fraser's Williams Lake and Fraser Lake sawmills. Lumber graders, for example, are working with ever-increasing piece counts. Some practical help is offered in the design of the company's new Quesnel planer. Partial turners are being installed on grading tables, floor levels can be adjusted to different operator heights and rear-end and hip supporters mean workers don't have to stand all shift. 

Sawdust is part of sawmilling but improving ventilation and dust extraction systems in West Fraser's sawmills is another ergonomic consideration for Dr. Smith. He notes all sawmills have similar occupational hazards. 

One of the first programs Dr. Smith initiated to introduce himself and the company doctor concept to employees was a cholesterol testing machine. He trucked it around to company lunch rooms. A flu vaccine program has been available to employees for about seven years. "Studies have shown it benefits everyone, not just those with specific health risks. Employees are better off health-wise and financially. The company's better off having the employee working." Employees and employer can similarly benefit when the doctor consults on return to work suitability issues. 

Hearing screening programs are inhouse and a lung function testing program is available to employees for long-term monitoring. Designated smoking areas haven't pleased everyone. But Dr. Smith claims smokers' health problems cost the industry millions of dollars each year. 

A wellness committee in Quesnel brings sawmill and planer people together about four times a year to talk about health-related issues. Lifestyle sessions have been one result. Another is a wills program. About 50 per cent of employees didn't have wills but, thanks to a consulting lawyer and company underwriting, employees can secure their estates at about half the regular price. 

West Fraser is an expanding company but Dr. Smith is a department consisting of himself, one full-time and one part- time employee. How to expand has yet to be determined. Dr. Smith believes the medical doctor component is important to a well-rounded approach toward mill worker wellness. He suggests combining that with occupational health-trained nurses would be most advantageous to employees. 


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