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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rise in Oregon logging deaths may be tied to experience level

PORTLAND — When 24-year-old Jessie Rucker died under a felled ponderosa pine, he was Oregon's eighth logging-related fatality last year, marking the second consecutive year the number of logging deaths has risen.

Overall, the state's workplace-fatality count dropped from 52 in 2002 to 41 last year. That figure remains above the all-time low of 34 recorded in 2001.

The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services said 12 workers died last year in motor-vehicle crashes — the leading cause of on-the-job deaths.

Seven workers — including five loggers — died after being struck by objects. Six died in helicopter or small-plane crashes while on the job.

Logging and fishing consistently rank among the nation's most dangerous occupations, and both are represented strongly in Oregon.

In 2002, Oregon's fatality rate for loggers was 92 deaths per 100,000 workers. By comparison, the fatality rate for all occupations was 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers.

Oregon officials Wednesday said they were at a loss to explain why logging fatalities continued to rise despite the drop in overall deaths. Industry and workplace-safety experts say part of the rise might come from the combination of an aging work force and difficulties luring new workers into the field.

"It's a shrinking labor market," said Gary Rischitelli, assistant scientist at Oregon Health & Science University Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, which is studying workplace fatalities in depth for federal health officials. "It's harder and harder for contractors to find well-trained and experienced, reliable workers."

According to the Oregon Employment Department's latest figures, the number of workers employed in logging has fallen from 13,000 in 1988 to 7,600 in 2002.

"A new worker might come and be moved up more quickly than they did 10 years ago," said Rod Huffman, trade consultant and loss-control consultant for Associated Oregon Loggers.

Three of the loggers who died last year, including Rucker, had been on the job less than four months, state statistics show.

At the other end of the spectrum, four victims were more than 52 years old.

"The new worker is probably inexperienced and old workers are overconfident," Rischitelli said. "There's also the fact that older workers don't survive serious trauma as well."

In Rucker's death, Oregon's Occupational Safety & Health Division (OSHA) fined New Creation Logging $10,000 for violating state safety regulations, including two aimed at keeping cutters away from surrounding hazards and ensuring trees are cut properly, agency spokesman Kevin Weeks said. New Creation Logging appealed the fine, and a settlement agreement reduced the penalty to $6,000, Weeks said.

In another logging-related fatality in September, Harold Hanscom, 75, while working on a logging road in Lane County, died after he lost control of a bulldozer that then rolled over an embankment. Hanscom was the company owner's uncle, state officials say.

State inspectors noted in a report that the employer, HM Inc., failed to enforce seat-belt rules and fined it $2,500, Weeks said. The employer appealed, and under a settlement, Oregon OSHA agreed to withdraw both the citation and the civil penalty.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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