At a time when safety initiatives are increasing across the state, Lewis County is experiencing an unusually high number of logging deaths.
The four logging deaths in Lewis County this year are nearly double the annual statewide average, according to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
“In the last few years, we have seen one or two deaths a year,” Elaine Fisher, spokeswoman for Labor and Industries, said. “Having four in Lewis County in a short time frame is pretty unusual.”
From 1998 to 2008, Lewis County had the highest number of logging deaths in the state at 11 out of 67 in 21 total counties, according to L&I.
Grays Harbor County had nine deaths and Thurston County had five.
Jerry Bonagofsky, director of the Washington Contract Loggers, said it is difficult to pinpoint specific reasons behind the fatal logging accidents, but there are some common trends.
Since the economic downturn, the logging industry is recovering with more operations occurring on hazardous land, Bonagofsky said.
The increase of non-mechanized logging — cable-rigging, choker-setting and hand-felling of trees — is keeping more workers on the ground.
The non-mechanized logging is often done on tougher, steep terrain, Bonagofsky said.
“There was a push to get into some of the tougher ground,” Bonagofsky said. “There was more exposure to hazards than what we have seen.”
David Bonauto, L&I research director and associate medical director, said he has found experience is a key factor to safety on a job site. Youth and inexperience have lead to high accident numbers statewide, he said.
According to L&I data between 2006 and 2010, 60 percent of hospitalized non-mechanized loggers worked less than a year for their company.
“I don’t want to blame the worker, because the work is incredibly hard,” Bonauto said. “This is an industry where there is very little margin for error.”
Cole Bostwick, 18, Winlock, is the most recent logging casualty in Lewis County. He was setting chokers off of Pe Ell-McDonald Road on May 21 when a carriage was lowered, accidentally crushing him. Bostwick, a fourth-generation logger, joined EMB Logging and Trucking with his father about one month prior. His father witnessed the accident.
Bostwick is the youngest person to die in a logging accident in Washington over the past decade, according to L&I.
“We have not had a person die that young in 10 years in Washington state,” Bonauto said.
Lewis County also claimed one of the oldest logger deaths when 68-year-old John B. Leonard died on March 27 after a branch fell on him at a logging site in Salkum.
L&I investigations for Bostwick and Leonard are still pending.
L&I recently fined Brindle Technical Logging Inc. $2,600 after investigating the logging accident that killed 21-year-old Winlock resident Tyler Bryan on February 10. Bryan was struck by a tree at a work site near Morton.
Brintech was fined for not ensuring that the three-man rigging crew was in the clear when a turn of logs was moving to the landing. The crew was within 40 feet of the skyline when the tail hold failed, causing the turn of logs to fall toward them, according to the findings.
Bryan is the second-youngest Washington logger to be killed in a logging accident in the past decade.
L&I is not investigating the fourth logging death in Lewis County because the 63-year-old man was working alone for his son’s company and they did not have an employment relationship.
Alex Oberg, 63, Toledo was found pinned under a tree Jan. 16 while cutting timber alone five miles east of Toledo. He was killed using a “domino effect” logging technique.”
“The four fatalities here, two were gentlemen that have worked in the industry for an awfully long time. The others were younger. What that proves is age doesn’t make you immune to the hazards,” Bonagofsky said.
Industry leaders around the state have banded together in recent years after agreeing that too many injuries have occurred, and logging companies are facing unaffordable workers' compensation premium rates.
Bonagofsky — along with other industry leaders from the Washington Contract Logger Association and Washington Forest Protection Association — spearheaded the Logging Safety Initiative in 2012.
The Logging Safety Initiative stemmed from L&I data that showed the premium rate for worker’s compensation in non-mechanized logging is was about $18 per hour. It is now up to $20.18, while other less dangerous jobs are as low as 25 cents per hour.
“That is an important finding. That reflects the severity of the injuries,” Bonauto said.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed a letter on May 21, 2013 committing the state to help provide time and resources for the safety initiative. The partners have since worked to fully develop the initiative and a safety training certification program.
“It is really getting off the ground and it will continue to develop over time,” Bonagofsky said.
While more is being done by industry leaders, preliminary data for 2012 and 2013 show the rates of reported logging accidents are decreasing, according to L&I.
Bonagofsky hopes the declining numbers of accidents show the industry no longer accepts the danger and is motivated to focus on safety.
“Accidents still occur, that is pretty evident in the four fatalities, but the mentality has changed,” Bonagofsky said.