NIOSH Study: Mechanized Felling Can Reduce Injuries in Logging Industry

Logging companies in West Virginia using mechanized harvesters had a significantly lower workers' compensation injury claim rate over a 6-year period than the rest of the West Virginia logging industry, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Companies that were only partially mechanized (feller buncher plus chainsaw operators/fellers) still showed a significant reduction in the rate of injury claims.

While logging is a key component of West Virginia's $1.4 billion wood products industry, it also is the country's most dangerous occupation. Logging's fatality rate of 131.6 per 100,000 workers was the highest of any occupation in 2003, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Because of the high injury rate in logging, many state and federal agencies as well as logger and industry groups have been working on ways to make logging safer. The NIOSH study examined the injury claim rate among West Virginia logging companies from 1995 through 2000.

The study looked at the injury claim rate in 11 companies that used mechanized tree fellers. The overall injury claim rate for these companies was examined for about 2 years before and about 2 years after they started using mechanical felling machines. No decline in employment occurred after mechanization; the average number of workers per company was 5.2 before mechanical harvester use and 6.5 after, according to NIOSH.

The injury claim rate dropped significantly after mechanized felling began, NIOSH says. The injury claim rate went from 19.4 per 100 workers before mechanized felling to 5.2 per 100 workers after mechanized felling began. The injury claim rate for the rest of the West Virginia logging industry not using feller bunchers was 16.6 per 100 workers.

The struck-by-an-object injury claim rate also dropped from 10.1 per 100 workers before mechanization to 1.9 per 100 workers after mechanization. The decline in struck by injuries is especially important because these injuries tend to be the most serious (most fatalities are the result of a struck-by injury), NIOSH says.

The NIOSH study also looked at companies participating in the West Virginia Loggers' Safety Initiative (LSI), which provided training to companies to reduce the frequency and severity of logging injuries. NIOSH compared workers' compensation injury claim rates for 20 fully or partially mechanized companies and 68 non-mechanized (fully manual) companies participating in the LSI.

The mechanized companies had an injury claim rate that was less than half that of the non-mechanized companies during the time they were in the LSI. This result demonstrates that mechanization can produce large reductions in injury claims, even within an LSI-trained group of loggers, according to NIOSH.

Mechanized Fellers Can Fell Workers' Comp Costs

During this study period, the average amount of a workers' compensation injury claim in the West Virginia logging industry was $10,400. Companies not using feller bunchers during the study period had an injury rate of 16.6 per 100 workers, or 11.4 more injuries than the mechanized study group (5.2 per 100). Thus, assuming that the use of mechanical felling machines would be feasible for all companies not using feller bunchers and that the amount of an injury claim remained constant before and after mechanization, injury claims amounts could be reduced by $118,560 per 100 workers, according to the NIOSH Study.

The number of logging companies that could become mechanized is currently unknown. However, injury claim amounts could be reduced by about $900,000 each year if 50 percent of the approximately 1,500 logging workers covered by the state workers' compensation system worked for a mechanized company.

The use of mechanized fellers will be limited in some areas because of economic and other constraints such as the cost of purchasing fellers and the steepness of the terrain in West Virginia. However, the NIOSH study concludes that the West Virginia logging industry as a whole may see substantial declines in injury claim rates if mechanized fellers are used whenever possible.

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