An RCMP photo showing the steep grade of the cutblock and the supersnorkel machine involved in the incident. Jeremy Tanaka was working near the yellow arrow seen when a tree dislodged and fatally struck him. (RCMP photo)

Western Forest Products fined $73K for high-risk violations causing a 2015 fatal accident near Port McNeill

WorkSafeBC levied the fine nearly five years after the incident that killed a north island resident.

Western Forest Products (WFP) has been fined $73,266 for a fatal accident in 2015 near Port McNeill.

WorkSafeBC cited “high-risk violations” in the incident causing the death of 38-year-old North Island resident Jeremy Tanaka, a father of four.

Tanaka was killed when a 114-foot hemlock, dislodged by a nearby machine, landed on him. WorkSafeBC concluded the accident was caused by safety violations committed by WFP and its contractor Coast Forest Industries.

Key violations were multi-phase logging, hand-fallers and machines working too closely together, and inadequate communication between managers.

Multi-phase logging is an industry term for working on all phases of logging simultaneously. In practice, it can mean machines work above fallers – a dangerous arrangement for fallers who have only a hard hat and a high-visibility vest as protection.

There are safety measures in place, but in this case they were not properly followed. The WorkSafeBC report states that managers and workers involved in the accident were not aware of space requirements for the machinery being used. They stuck to an estimated two tree-length distance, which is a rule of thumb in logging, but isn’t always sufficient. Certain machines have a hazard clearance requirement significantly longer than the trees in the area.

Positioning a machine above a faller is a dangerous practice, according to WorkSafeBC, and Tanaka’s father-in-law Martin (Sparky) Carlson.

“I was a logger fisherman all my life. What they did, with machines working above fallers, was something they didn’t do 30 years ago, 40 years ago. That wasn’t allowed, you just didn’t do that,” Carlson said.

“I didn’t know how bad it was until I went up the day after. I went up to the side hill with another logger. We stopped in our tracks, lost our breath, and just thought this is absolutely crazy, that this is the way it is set up.”

Jeremy Tanaka with his daughter in June 2015. (Family photo)

READ MORE: Tragic accident claims logger

On July 24, 2015 a machine was stationed on the steep cut block, above where Tanaka was working. A certified and experienced faller, he had talked with the machine operator about a certain dangerous cedar with debris high up. The operator was going to strike it with the supersnorkel machine (used to haul felled trees out of the bush via cables) to try to make the debris fall off.

When the operator knocked at the cedar, nothing fell, so he hit it again but this time the cables got stuck in the tree. He pulled back, thinking the cedar would break. Instead, it fell uphill toward the machine, and as it uprooted, a hemlock beside it was dislodged and fell downhill, striking Tanaka.

He was found dead about 30 minutes later.

READ MORE: Logging train incident near Woss kills three

Fallers had been complaining about phase congestion for several days before Tanaka’s death, as noted in the investigation. On July 15, 2015 there was a close call between a machine and a faller. Managers moved the machine further away and held a meeting to clarify the work plan. Yet, the woods foreman — in charge of machines on the cut block — told fallers the machines were “here to stay.” It was up to them to say something if they thought a machine was too close.

“A lot of the people [after Tanaka’s death] said they should have just walked away, but that wasn’t their style,” Carlson said. “Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.”

Multi-phase logging means trees get harvested faster, and Carlson suspects that was the driving force for putting loggers in unsafe positions.

“They really wanted to get into this area because cedar prices were high,” stated Carlson.

Tanaka could have refused to work, but he’d just as soon get the job done, Carlson said.

“They took advantage of him. He was an easy-going guy, a hard worker. Other guys wouldn’t have worked in that spot, but Jer was trying to help out the machiner.”

The WorkSafeBC report states Tanaka was trying to fell trees so the supersnorkel operator would have something to do.

As for the fine, Carlson says it’s an insult.

“I could afford that,” he said.

WFP responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement: “First and foremost, our thoughts continue to be with the family, loved ones and those who worked alongside Jeremy Tanaka.

”The safety and security of everyone in our workplace is our first priority.

”Western has a safe separation policy in place with minimum distance requirements between mobile equipment and people working onsite. This policy also restricts access to active worksites. We also have comprehensive training, communication, and documentation procedures in place.”

The WorkSafeBC investigation report was signed July 14, 2017, but the fine was not charged until March 5, 2020.

WorkSafeBC replied to a request for an interview with a comment stating that the penalty is meant to motivate employers to comply with safety regulations. The amount is based on “the size of the employer’s payroll, the nature of the violation, and an employer’s history of violations.” They added that “an administrative penalty does not, and cannot, reflect the tragic loss of life.”

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