If You Go Down to the Woods Today, Are You in For a Big Surprise?

AuthorJohn Heaney
PositionUniversity of Victoria, Faculty of Law
John Heaney, University of Victoria - Faculty of Law
In the ten years prior to entering UVic law school, John Heaney worked for the B.C. government, the f‌inal two
as a deputy minister to the Premier. He is currently articling with Arvay Finlay Barristers.
CITED: (2007) 12 Appeal 39-47
More people died harvesting British Columbia’s forests in 2005 than in any previous year
on record. The year also saw the highest number of compensation awards to forest workers for
serious injuries since the provincial worker compensation scheme was established in 1917.
While stakeholders offer a variety of explanations for the record number of fatalities and in-
juries, all agree that a contributing factor has been the recent transformation of the legal work-
ing relationship in the forestry industry. Faced with immense economic pressure occasioned by
signif‌icant market changes and public demands for greater environmental integrity, most major
forest companies have responded by shedding almost all of their woodland employees over the
past two decades and replacing them with independent contractors.
Of the 7,000 f‌irms engaged in the timber harvest and related work, more than 95 per cent
are small businesses with fewer than twenty employees and almost half are sole proprietorships or
one-person corporations. These independent contractors now stand in the shoes of their former
employers. They have the greatest responsibility for compliance with safety regulations, and they
are now paying the compensation fund premiums to WorkSafeBC that their bosses used to pay.
This paper opens with a statistical picture of the forestry sector and forest worker safety
over the past decade. It considers changes in the legal relations between the principal parties
and their changing relationship with the law of workplace safety and the economics of accident
While there is likely no consensus on whether reorganization is the cause of B.C.’s deadliest
year in the woods, the provincial safety and compensation regulator appears to acknowledge
that a problem exists. A relatively recent WorkSafeBC guideline appears to be designed to allow
regulators to interpret B.C. legislation—enacted as it is on the foundation of the employer–em-
ployee relationship—in a way that makes licensees1 as responsible for safety as they were when
they actually had woodlands employees working directly for them. Whether WorkSafeBC’s
Guideline 26.2.1 can bridge that gap, or whether B.C.’s current legislation regulates an industry
that no longer exists, is the question at hand.
1 The terms licensee, major forest company and integrated company refer to the large companies holding timber tenures and
other harvesting rights who traditionally harvested and processed the bulk of B.C.’s forestry resources.

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