Forest Workers’ Health and Safety
Forest workers face many hazards on the job including falling branches, chain saw injuries, falls while working on slippery, uneven terrain, heat stress, exposure to the cold and wet weather, exposure to gasoline (direct skin contact with the liquid as well as inhalation of the fumes), musculoskeletal disorders due to carrying heavy loads for long hours, vehicular accidents during transportation to and from the work site; forestry work is recognized as one of the most dangerous jobs.
Although a few contractors provide extensive safety training to their workers, most workers receive no training. Moreover, most workers do not know their rights and are unaware of the laws entitling them to a safe work place and to medical care if they are injured. Many workers tell of delaying treatment for injuries on the job, and of tremendous difficulties in navigating the workers’ compensation system. This is compounded by their visa status. If they stay in the US to follow up on workers’ compensation or complaints against their employer they may violate their visa; if they do not stay their case may be forgotten.
Latino Forest Workers Share their Stories
Since 2010, LOHP has partnered with the Northwest Forest Worker Center (NFWC) in Medford, Oregon to help address the unsafe and unhealthy working conditions faced by forest workers who do forest thinning, tree planting, brush burning, and other labor-intensive forest management tasks. Rising temperatures and more frequent droughts lead to many more dead and dying trees in our forests, resulting in greater demand for these services.
“The work is very hazardous—working with chainsaws, on slippery slopes, among falling trees, in cold and hot weather. This, combined with a fast-paced work environment and insufficient attention paid to safety, means that forest workers suffer injury and illness rates two-three times higher and fatality rates nine times higher than the general U.S. workforce,” says Diane Bush, who coordinates this project together with Dinorah Barton-Antonio. In the Pacific Northwest, most forest workers are Spanish-speaking immigrants with limited English and low literacy skills, who are also justifiably fearful of reprisals if they speak up about hazards on the job.
NFWC and LOHP joined forces with the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health (PNASH) program to capture “worker success stories” and evaluate the use of storytelling as a tool to strengthen the ability of individuals and communities to push for safer and more just working conditions. The team collected stories where workers had reported injuries to supervisors, sought medical care, or attempted to improve working conditions. Five of these were turned into digital stories during a 2-day StoryCenter workshop where workers developed their own videos documenting their experiences. With training and ongoing assistance from LOHP, NFWC’s promotoras—wives of forest workers or former forest workers—are using these digital stories to trigger conversations with workers about their rights on the job and steps they can take to protect themselves and their co-workers. You can find two of the stories here: https://nwforestworkers.org/programs. The forest worker project also includes ongoing training with promotoras and workers, as well as training and resources for supervisors.
Faculty Partners: Butch de Castro and Victoria Breckwich Vasquez, University of Washington
Promotora Program for Forest Workers
Sí, Se: Salud Y Seguridad en el Trabajo
(NIOSH, OSHA 2010-2012) In partnership with the Northwest Forest Worker Center, LOHP developed materials and provided training and support for wives of forest workers in Southern Oregon to become promotoras to the forest worker community. During the project period, promotoras provided training to hundreds of forest workers. Evaluation results showed that through this promotora program, community capacity to address working conditions increased through 1) increased leadership and community access to information and resources; and 2) increased worker awareness of workplace health and safety rights and resources. While fear of retaliation remains a barrier to workers taking action, the promotoras supported several workers in addressing specific workplace issues. The promotoras continue to work with the NFWC.