March April 2005
 

 

 

 

Safety Through Mechanization

Innovations over the past decades have created more mechanized harvesting and safety environment for loggers

By Barbara Coyner

The last log drive on the Clearwater in the ‘70s, just as more mechanized approaches were being developed.

Some call Pat Crawford “a living legend in the forestry equipment business.” To Crawford, who started out a half century ago wielding a chain saw in the woods of Wisconsin and Oregon, the word “living” says it all. Logging can be life threatening, and in today’s timber world, the smart contractor doesn’t cut corners when cutting timber. That’s part of what motivated Crawford to develop safer logging equipment back in the ‘70s. “There’s not even a comparison,” says Crawford of today’s safer logging equipment. “It’s been an evolutionary thing, and I’m a big believer in putting something over your head in case a tree comes back on you. You have to be conscientious and do what you have to do to make things safe.”

Progressive Thinking
Crawford challenged himself to combine cutting shears with a base machine to carry the shears, eventually developing the prototype Timbco feller buncher in the late ‘70s. Others were aiming at the same technology, as well, clearly trying to move logging out of the top five most dangerous occupations. These days, as Crawford concentrates on rubbertired forestry equipment, cut-to-length harvesters and forwarders with his TimberPro line, he’s still focused on safety. “We do what we call destructive testing,” he says. “We build a unit to destroy it, just to see what it will take. It needs to be sturdy with strength to take a rollover, and also strength enough to carry the weight of the shears. There’s some value to a lighter cab, but we build ours heavier to do what we can to protect the operator.” Crawford points out that a sturdy cab is only part of the added safety. The cutting attachment is operated remotely, separating the operator from the jaws of sharp cutters. Grapples also allow safety margins between the operator and the logs. Todd Gordon, a forestry equipment veteran of more than 20 years with Blount Manufacturing, says the improved safety due to mechanization is purely and simply “a given.” Gordon has himself carried a chain saw, yet knows the track record of the feller bunchers, loaders and skidders he sells. It’s that cab advantage again.

Logging with “hayburners” before OSHA.

New Kind of Logger “Two things go hand-in-hand,” says the Wisconsin native. “Get the logger off the forest floor and into the machine. Then if he’s more comfortable, he’s going to produce more. With workers harder to come by, you have to offer more safety.” Gordon admits that most of today’s loggers represent a new breed of cat, one not merely adept at sharpening a chain saw. Workers are more specialized and can readily spout the techniques of riparian management, as well as analyze innovative machinery. “To stay in the game today, you have to be part logger, part mechanic and part businessman. The picture has changed a lot and wood is smaller, so machines are sized to take 24 inches or less. There’s just not as much place for the finesse of the old master that could put that giant tree down on a pop can.”

Staging Safety
Another safety edge for Gordon is the actual configuration at the logging site. Because of specialized equipment, a site frequently gets laid out differently, with machines not as likely to be dodging each other. “There are no longer five things going on at the landing. Everything is staged out, even the equipment removal. When the operation is done, there’s not a big equipment rodeo, because not everything is trucked out at once.”

Logging in the Clearwater region of Idaho, with early day "mechanized".

Watch, Read and Review
Blount, like TimberPro, remains fanatical about safety, issuing complete instructions and operational videos. Another big part of the safety campaign for Gordon, is the panel of loggers from different areas who are assembled to do hands-on review. “We usually get a user-friendly machine the first time out because of that input,” he says. “It’s actually cheaper to fly all those loggers in just to get that feedback on our new equipment.” While Crawford and Gordon cite everything from tough cabs to radios, CBs and first aid training as part of the improved safety package, Potlatch Corporation forester Larry Chambers relates from the actual on-the-ground angle. With 26 years of experience working directly with logging contractors, Chambers counts safety as a huge priority.

His company agrees, signing on to a unique partnership with OSHA, the only one of its kind in the nation. The agreement stipulates that Potlatch will meet or exceed all OSHA standards, and will submit to frequent safety inspections and audits. “Cut-to-length has been a huge part of improved safety, and having that enclosed canopy around you at all times puts a lot in your favor,” says Chambers, noting that freak accidents are still a reality for the logging trade. “Out there on the ground with a chain saw, you’re just exposed to more hazards. Of course cut-to-length is limited because of topography and cost sometimes, but we try to use as many of those units as we can. The feller buncher is also strong in terms of safety. Let’s face it, anyone in a machine is generally safer than someone out on the ground.”

Safe and Profitable
Better safety equals better profit, and numbers guy Bill Pickell, head of the Washington Contract Loggers Association, has the evidence. “The contractors we have that are running mechanized equipment show that in particular, those who are using cut-to-length machinery have very few accidents. In fact, the cut-to-length loggers have the safest of operations. This has been recognized by the Department of Labor and Industry (workman’s compensation) with some of the lowest logging rates.” Pickell notes that a beginning logging business starts out at a modification rate of one, and that mod rate is adjusted up or down as the company builds experience. Safer operations can fluctuate down below one, while less safe operations can go over one. The rate translates into dollars spent or saved, depending on the company’s overall track record.

Pickell notes that several WCLA members with mechanized equipment have a mod rate of .5, meaning they pay about 55 cents per hour. At the same time, companies that have to keep men on the ground can find themselves shelling out the standard logging rate of $8.21 per hour. “Non cut-to-length operations, those that run a Cat, skidder, loader and processor, are still considered mechanized and are very safe, and those are covered by the mechanized logging rate as long as they have no one on the ground and set no chokers,” Pickell says.

Skyline Advances
But even the skyline-logging arena has benefited from modern inventions, and landings are much safer thanks to innovation and new approaches. Washington state logger Les Allen describes his skyline operation as a recipe using a feller buncher, a loader, and electric chokers to great advantage. For the topography being worked, the equipment interfaces extremely well, with the electric chokers making a man at the landing unnecessary. Thanks to the electronics aspect, the yarder operator offloads the logs from his cab. And that leads to a much safer landing, and a reduction in insurance premiums for L&I, with only two people on the ground. It’s a new day in logging, say veteran equipment reps such as Crawford and Gordon, who have spanned the distance between cross-cuts and chain saws, and the sophisticated equipment of today. Most agree that, while loggers can’t always predict the behavior of the trees in the woods, they would like to see a time when the term “widow maker” is only found in history books.

TW

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This page was last updated on Monday, April 18, 2005