Tag Archives: USA

The Big Burn: Saluting the Bravery of Early Forestry Workers

Currently on Netflix is a documentary about the forest fires that devastated North Western areas of the USA in 1910.  I like to connect our understanding of health and safety with those that gave us the knowledge we enjoy. The program is a salute to early forestry workers and their incredible bravery when they fought The Big Burn.

After a season of 1000s of fires the newly formed forestry service thought they had contained the worst of them. Back then there were only about 500 such rangers working to establish an idea of conservation in rugged public lands. Their efforts were often resented by miners and loggers who knew that these backwoods were not theirs to work, but a long tradition gave them a sense of entitlement.

President Teddy Roosevelt, a big time fan of the wilderness, saw the need to preserve natural resources for the future. In the early 20th century unregulated production of timber was slowly exhausting the vast forests and the effects of mining were poisoning it. Enter young men dispatched to tame the disorderly industries that relied on nature.

Some of these guys had a patch of 300 square miles. In there could be boom towns with accompanying violence. In the woods were few roads and a scattered group of operators understandably after profit for hard work. Government interference was not a flavour they took to.

Trains belched smoke and sparks as they thundered through the wilderness. Storms would spit lightening out of the skies and steam machinery in the woods threatened to ignite the world all around.

The summer of 1910 was a dry season. The fires that spread were combated by men with days of hiking to do before tackling them. There were no respirators, no air support or for that matter no special tools.

charred trees and workers in 1910 surveying the burnt forest.
The fires left scars on the land clearly visible today.

They did understand how to create fire breaks and until the 19/20th August they were doing well.  They had to appeal for federal funds to recruit men just for the purpose but it was crucial work. In the valleys that were surrounded by these dense forests were wooden towns. Worse, this still being a frontier type environment, a lot of the settlements were constructed out of canvas and tar paper. As embers fell it took little to see a town go up like a gigantic firework.

Nature Ups the Stakes and Creates the Big Burn

The worst thing that could happen took place that August. A storm accompanied by 70 mile an hour winds. The programme concentrates on an area around Wallace, Idaho, but in the end 3 million acres were incinerated. That is about half the size of the UK.

 

black and white showing the ruis of a western town after the flames went through it.
What was left of Wallace. Women, children and the elderly escaped just in time. The men were left to do what they could.

87 people, mainly firefighters, were caught in flames that progressed faster than a horse could run. They were high in the hills and overtaken. Many more were injured. Buffalo Soldiers saved one town in a titanic effort after they were trapped. Other places, Wallace among them, were evacuated by rail at the last moment.

The bravery of those people puts us to shame when we complain about trivial events.  The survivors hid in mine workings or stumbled frantically out of the path of the flames. Lives were destroyed yet out of the charred aftermath came positive things

What We Know Now About Forest Fires

Apart from the progress in firefighting and safety came an understanding of the wilderness. Ironically we now know that without occasional fires, the forests themselves suffer. Nature has its way sometimes and it is better left to it where possible.

Have a watch of this PBS production if you get a chance. All our safety started with heroics and mistakes and to all that went before  I am grateful.

Take care,

Chris Hodge

 

When it Comes to Health and Safety, What is Going on in France?

I know well that statistics can be manipulated to prove almost any point.  So when I was looking at the provisional total of fatal workplace injuries  I was aware of the variables.  I scanned the figures for 2015/16 and was pleased to see there had not  been an increase in incidents. It was as I looked at an EU comparison I found something curious. When it comes to health and safety, what is going on in France?

I had made a presumption that the relatively wealthy nations would score well and those moving up financially would lag behind. I was wrong, at least wrong because of France.

The British figures for 2015/16 will be confirmed in July this year, however, the average is taken over 5 years so we can lean on that.   Obviously if a single horrific incident fatally injures a large number of workers the average would spike, hence that 5 year standard. Currently 2015/16 here is projected to stand at 0.42 per 100,000 while the 5 year average is 0.52.

When I delved into the EU figures over the last decade the British safety record compares very well with other nations. All EU nations have seen a steady reduction in fatalities, without exception, but many of them had a worse record than we had to start with. For example if we look at the deaths that occurred in 1996/97 our 5 year average is half what it was back then.  However, France? I still don’t get it

France keeps company with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and is one place behind the Czech Republic. In 2013/14 ( the last Eurostat figures I could find) France returns a rate of 2.94 deaths per 100,000  workers, with an average that is slightly higher over previous years.

Again I know that figures can vary but there was no apparent spike that year.  France is the 5th biggest world economy, they built the Eiffel Tower I mean they are sensible people overall so what is going on? No comfort is to be found in the figures for none fatal injuries either, they topped the table there with rivalry from Portugal and Spain.

Naturally enough the rate in which injuries required time off work was also high. In the same period 1.4 per 100,000 workers needed time off after injury in the UK whereas across The Channel 3.1 were laid up.

In conclusion I can find no reason for the increased risk to workers in France. This obvious issue is hardly mentioned. Across the board in the EU figures France stands out time and time again when it comes to injuries to workers. Across nationalities if say one nation was working in great numbers in France and their home figures showed large numbers of worker injuries then you could say that bad practise had been imported. That isn’t the case, however, because going back to 2002 ( before major EU worker movement) the UK still had less than a 3rd of the fatal accidents its neighbour had.

My own opinion from this brief study is that so long as a single worker is killed or seriously injured then there are no laurels to be awarded to the UK or anyone else. That said I think we apply safety legislation and standards better than many countries. Globally a rate of 20 plus per 100,000 is sadly not unusual so in comparison criticising EU nations seems a bit silly. However, once you factor in the financial stability ( and while we are at it the political stability) of France with the worst record holders world wide their death rate is still best described as concerning. Yet there is no concern to be found. Unfortunately for now I will have to leave it there. I will keep digging  and let you know if I find the golden variable that explains this apparent issue. Meanwhile working in France? Take care.

Below are some of the references I found on this subject and as always I would be interested in your comments.

Regards

Chris Hodge.

International comparison of work place deaths 2002 Click here

HSE European Stats Click here

Eurostats Click here

HSE Fatal injuries Click here

Comparison stats I found looking at the USA and UK. We still come out better. No celebration just interesting. Click here 

The Worst Health and Safety Fail That Looked Safe

That is a bold statement and to be honest I would accept arguments on other cases without much protest. For me, the worst health and safety fail that looked safe happened to Archie Tyler in 2001.

Mr Tyler was a watershed maintenance worker in the Bronx, New York. This 43 year old guy was dispatched with colleagues to the Jerome Park Reservoir.  Jerome Park is in the Bronx and the reservoir is about a football field in size. It was built in 1906 as part of the water supply system for the New Croton Aqueduct.

Aerial Google shot of Jerome Park water and surrounding urban housing.
Thanks to Google maps, all rights reserved. Jerome Park where Archie Tyler died while just doing a routine job.

By the time Mr Tyler arrived on that awful day the water was about 2 feet deep and it was seen as a risk. Not that it seemed a risk to the workers. The concern was that mosquitoes would breed and spread the West Nile River Virus. At 08.30 am the three man crew took to a small boat and paddled out to where the central drain was located. This had become clogged with debris and needed clearing. Mr Tyler got out of the boat and using a rake began to move the obstruction.

The drain, which had no grating, led to a 20 inch pipe. Once it was cleared the water surged into the new opening.

So there was the scene. Mr Tyler was held by his colleagues as the pressure tried to force him into the pipe. What could they do? They were in a boat and could lend no purchase, the bottom of the reservoir was algae covered and slippery.

Fire service personnel found Mr Tyler’s body when they accessed the drain via a maintenance hatch. He had been sucked down 15 feet and then into a connecting pipe, he had then been dragged 200ft until his body was lodged at a bend.

Union local President Ed Bennett said, ‘ If you saw the drain and the water, you really wouldn’t expect that cleaning the drain could put your life at risk. Still, DEP ( Department of Environmental Protection) had a responsibility to evaluate the job for any possible hazards, which could have prevented this tragedy.’

The Tragic Fact: Water, Fire, Weight, Height and Electricity Kill

It is the terrible consequence of being taken into that pipe that haunts me a little bit. I am not going to speculate on exactly what happened after Mr Tyler went under. I have looked for the findings of the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau investigation and I cannot locate it online. At the time the local DEP were criticised for not providing a tripod support for harnesses and for providing no information about the risks involved ahead of time. I can’t comment on if they were finally found at fault. I can say that in 2 foot of water nothing usually looks dangerous.

Now I have heard this story of course my approach would be cautious.  Unfortunately that is how health and safety has progressed. Our own safety has often been assured because of people like Archie Tyler. Honestly speaking? If I had been on that crew on that day in 2001, I might have been the one with the rake, all the while thinking, ‘ This won’t take long.’

Regards

Chris Hodge

References: Local Union article Click Here 

New York Times article Click Here 

Here are some other case study articles.

Australian Firm Fined 1m Aus Dollars. Click here

‘It Will Be Right’ Trench walls and excavators increase the risk. Click here