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Minnesota wants to make one of the state’s most dangerous industries a little less dangerous

Logging has made large improvements in safety, especially as the industry has become more mechanized, but it is still far more dangerous than many occupations in Minnesota. 

Logging trailer
One piece of equipment loggers often want to upgrade is their logging trailer. The trailers are used to haul wood to mills, and traditionally workers need to secure the logs with chains, meaning the trucker has to get on top of the log load and position everything.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry runs a grant program that offers roughly $1 million per-year to help businesses in the state pay for workplace safety upgrades. This year, state lawmakers started another new safety grant program, and though it costs about as much as the old one, it’s aimed entirely at one small industry: logging.

The new grant money was a request from DLI commissioner Roslyn Robertson, who said loggers and timber truckers have “extremely” dangerous jobs and face higher costs in making safety upgrades, particularly when buying new equipment. Robertson said the industry’s decline — and its aging workforce — also drove her push for a program that one logging official says will be unique in the country.

DLI’s traditional safety grant program is open to all sorts of industries, including construction, manufacturing, excavation, window washing and farming. State officials say the initiative is usually funded at a little more than $1 million per year, and awards employers with matching grants up to $10,000 per year to buy things like equipment, training for that equipment or the cost of operating safety tools.

Robertson, the DLI commissioner, said in an interview that she managed the unit carrying out the safety grant program before becoming the agency’s leader, and heard previously from loggers who said the program didn’t quite meet their needs because equipment is simply too expensive. “Over the years I had heard repeatedly, ‘Well, you know, the $10,000 matching grant is great but it just doesn’t buy anything in the logging industry.’”

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Now commissioner at DLI, Robertson said she began a push for the new grant program as a way to help the industry after she realized it was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Loggers in the state tend to be older and some had “expressed real discomfort,” Robertson said, at the thought of in-person safety training last year.

“Understanding that this is a maturing industry and that we need to figure out how to support the industry so that it will be here for the next generation, I was just moved by the renewed conversation, ‘Well, what can we do to demonstrate to this industry that it is valued,’” Robertson said.

In advocating for the program, DLI worked closely with Scott Dane, who became executive director of the national American Loggers Council in June but had previously run the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota. The grants were approved by the Legislature in late June

Dane said there are about 300 logging companies in Minnesota, which have an average of five to seven employees, but Robertson said many loggers or logging truckers are sole proprietors. They supply the much larger forest products industry, such as paper mills.

Logging has made large improvements in safety, especially as the industry has become more mechanized, Robertson said. But it remains dangerous and workers risk injury from slips, falls and other hazards. State data says that in 2019, there were 1.60 “indemnity” claims per 100 logging workers, which are claims eligible for wage loss or permanent disability benefits because of injury. By contrast, in 2019 there were fewer than half the indemnity claims per 100 workers in all industries, according to DLI. While those rates have varied in both categories in past years, indemnity claim rates among loggers are consistently higher than the average for all workers.

Dane, who lives in Gilbert, said one piece of equipment loggers often want to upgrade is their logging trailer. The trailers are used to haul wood to mills, and traditionally workers need to secure the logs with chains, meaning the trucker has to get on top of the log load and position everything. “In the winter time, the logs are frozen and slippery and you’re up there quite a ways,” Dane said, so the potential for injury is “great.”

A new trailer called a crib or bunk trailer doesn’t require chains or cargo straps to secure the wood because it’s configured in a way so the logs can’t fall off, Dane said.

But Dane said loggers might want a host of mechanized equipment such as machinery that cuts the trees or de-limbs them. The old way of de-limbing a tree, Dane said, was with a chainsaw. “Chainsaws account for 33,000 injuries a year in the United States,” he said.

Dane said loggers have used the traditional safety grant program some in the past, but the initiative didn’t take into account the “high capital investments” for loggers. 

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Dane said a crib trailer might only be about $50,000 to $60,000, but said he knows a logger who bought a delimber for $350,000 to $400,000.

“It’s difficult for these guys to make those kind of investments beyond the equipment that they currently have, which meets all of the applicable safety requirements,” Dane said. “It’s just that the new ergonomics, and added safety features that are incorporated — higher visibility, environmental protections and stuff like that — equipment is evolving all the time.”

The logging-focused safety grant only has $1 million and isn’t automatically set to renew. To be eligible, an employer has to meet a few requirements, such as producing an “on-site safety survey” from an expert like a state safety investigator that recommends specific equipment. 

DLI had 28 applications for the money in the first grant round announced Aug. 15. Of those, 27 were approved for a total of $666,343.50, an agency spokesman said Monday. (One business withdrew its application.)

Most got the maximum $25,000 matching grant, including: Tyler’s Backhoe Service in Walker, which got money for a forwarder that carries wood away from a logging site; Wood Forest Products in Cotton, which got a grant for a crib trailer; Owen and Wentworth Logging in Hines, which got money for a slasher that cuts logs so they can fit on transportation vehicles; and Krueger Dirtwerx in Mahtowa, which won a grant for a delimber.

Dane said Minnesota’s logger safety grant program is the only one of its kind in the United States. “This is something we want to share across the country as a very successful program with a great return on investment,” Dane said. “With the high demand that we can demonstrate within a two-month period for the most part exhausting those funds I think the argument is there that this needs to be reviewed and perhaps funded with additional funding and continued.”