LSI and Logging Safety in Washington

Talk with any logging contractor in the state of Washington and you’ll hear about the high cost of L&I (Labor and Industries) workman’s compensation (workman’s comp) insurance, and with good cause: it’s certainly amongst the highest, if not the highest in the nation. Perhaps not a problem to anyone other than contractors in Washington state, however any issue affecting logging in one state or region is worth paying attention to because those issues inevitably can have an effect on other regions as well. Understanding the issues of one region may help prevent or ward off similar issues in your state.

Each state calculates its workman’s comp rate a little differently, thus finding a means of comparison is challenging; Washington’s rate is based on the hours reported (different from anywhere else). That said Washington remains substantially higher.

To address the issue government and private industry formed a partnership in March of 2013 creating the Washington Loggers Safety Initiative (LSI) whose goals are to: 1) promote a “safety first” culture for all logging-industry employers and workers; 2) reduce the frequency and severity of injuries and prevent deaths; 3) Increase proper reporting of worker hours; and 4) Explore options to reduce costs in the industry. The consortium includes industry, WCLA (Washington Contract Loggers Assn.), and several other state and private agencies including the Washington L&I.

LSI participating contractors can receive an immediate 10% reduction in rates with an additional 10% available once participants pass a third party audit successfully.

Reactions have been varied, and some contractors are very vocal and skeptical of success, however in spite of all the grumbling and complaining, most are on the same page in recognizing all are better served with a safe working environment. While the temptation may be overwhelming at times to toss up one’s hands and walk away, that is not a viable option. To change the system requires working from within that system towards a safer work environment.

LSI may not be prefect, and it is a work in progress. It’s design is intended to emphasize training to constantly reinforce a “safety culture” in logging operations, increase the accurate reporting and participation in the L&I program.

The next few years we’re very likely to have an increased demand for workforce within our industry due to the forecast increased demand for logs and wood fiber. Commitment to better training, stronger supervision, follow through and putting a sound foundation of safety into the mindset of that labor force will pay dividends and both a safer and more productive work force.

Another goal of the LSI program is to, “...explore options to reduce costs in the industry,” all fine and laudable goals. We heartily agree that reducing costs is a worthwhile aim, but it should be extended to efficient operations within the Washington L&I as well, an idea we find unlikely to have a warm reception either at L&I or the Washington state public employees union.

The heart of the problem with government operations in a state where one party has had sole control the past several decades is complacency, with the overwhelming tendency of entrenched bureaucracies to protect their individual fiefdoms rather than concern themselves with efficient operations that could pose a threat to the status quo. Thus “don’t rock the boat,” and “go along and get along,” becomes a stronger environmental reality and serving the public and striving for greater efficiencies.

The LSI leadership is right on the mark in pursuing accurate reporting of hours, and increasing the side of those participating. A larger audience spreads the risk to a broader base, while encouraging safety to that broader audience... ultimately, greater participation has to result in a lower cost basis.

We feel that another environment change needed from Washington’s L&I focus being on serving their clients in promoting and encouraging safety in the operations, rather than their perceived (and frequently mentioned) interest in viewing their clients as a revenue stream through issuing tickets and fines for contractor shortcomings. Presently a contractor can invite L&I to visit their work site for a “review” that would point out deficiencies to be corrected, which the contractor must rectify in a specified time frame or be subject to fine. However the environment created by the L&I has earned them their reputation as fine masters well beyond “safety experts,” there to help everyone achieve a safer work place.

After listening to an LSI presentation by L&I staff at the recently completed Intermountain Logging Conference in Spokane, Washington this past month, we’d wondered if the best results for state funds for safer logging might be used to fund “safety specialists” working directly under the leadership of the WCLA, where there’s no real or imagined threat of fines but a genuine and trusted safety expert ready to help design and implement safety programs for the contractor and their crew. A radical departure from today’s practice for the state, certainly, but where everyone recognizes the ultimate goal is a “safer work environment” why not shift the thinking from fines to a positive outcome? Can state government, L&I or the state employees union see their way to trying an approach that’s yielded better results in other states? Or will they cling to the past and protect their own turf?

More than a decade (maybe two) ago, we heard the executive who headed the revamping of the state of Oregon’s State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) at the Associated Oregon Loggers (AOL) annual meeting in Eugene. He’d noted that while most of those he dealt with were encouraging and supportive, it inevitably was couched with the idea that “our group is fine,” and that the others may need s­­­ome cleaning up. He heard this from virtually everyone, service providers (medical), physical therapists, investigators, etc. with the message being “look over there, not here.” At the end of the day, SAIF was revamped, reorganized, increased efficiencies and a reduction in costs and increase in benefits to those who have a demonstrated need.

Reduced operating costs and increased efficiencies should deliver a far better benefits to injured and recovering workers, and help to fund a more effective safety program in place especially in logging, placing the safety guys in the field with the audience they can actually help by helping that work place’s safety environment.
Last but not least, in spite of the Washington state voter’s rejection of the Workman’s Comp Insurance Reform Initiative in 2010, competition would be very healthy for business and serve as an incentive for the Washington L&I to run efficiently. Certainly it is not a panacea, and there is no guarantee that private insurance companies would rush to take on state industrial accident insurance in Washington.

That measure bombed at the polls losing by 60/40, in a clear demonstration that advertising is very persuasive. The typical rules of “follow the money” says a great deal about whose interests were being served in seeing the measure defeated, not surprisingly the 20 leading contributors were “lawyers and lobbyists) chipping in $1,946,297 in campaign funds, followed by aerospace industry, Washington State Labor Council, and other unions.

Supporters were primarily the insurance industry.

To the winner receives the status quo.

The losers... you could say big insurance lost, but in an industry where choice and the market prevails, and the winner is chosen by the market place, the real losers were the companies and individuals in the state. We can assure you the legal industry was not funding the campaign out of ideological purity, they wanted to keep the cash cow alive, working and maintaining itself a trough of public cash to play in and profit from.
When all is said and done, Washington state’s L&I could do far better, yet their only potential incentive comes through competition, a very foreign playing field for they and their minions. Follow the money... it leads to whose interests are truly at stake.

For all the grousing and grumbling being bantered about, the LSI is a good first step on the way towards enlightenment and reform. It’s both time consuming, paper and meeting intensive, but it sets and emphasizes the safer work place that serves us all. Certainly there are adjustments that must be made and those costs cannot be borne solely by the logging contractors but by industry and landowners as well.
Where none of the forest has marketable value until harvested, and we can see a strong, positive demand for this most renewable and ecologically sustainable resource, industry should invest not only in todays, but our future, work force by paying to attract and maintain that skilled work force in a safe working environment. 

by / Mike Crouse