By Les Christie@CNNMoneyAugust 23, 2013: 10:36 AM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
The nation's loggers died on the job at an unexpectedly high rate in 2012.
There were 64 killed last year, according to an annual report released Thursday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was 128 fatalities for every 100,000 workers employed, up 25% from 102 deaths in 2011. It was the first year since 2004 that the death rate for loggers led that of all other American workers.
"I'm quite surprised by that number because the industry is mechanizing at a rapid rate, which should bring down fatalities," said Eric Johnson, editor of The Northern Logger and a former logger.
The death rate for loggers has more than doubled since 2009. Logger fatalities surpassed the rate for fishermen, which is 117 deaths per 100,000 workers. And the rate is nearly 40 times higher than it is for the average U.S. worker -- 3.2 per 100,000.
A boom in new home construction may have forced the industry to hire more inexperienced workers who are more prone to accidents, said Neil Ward, vice president of the Forest Resources Association.
A similar problem seems to have dogged the construction industry, where many rookie workers were hired last year. Fatalities rose 5% in 2012, according to the BLS, the first increase for construction workers since 2006.
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Still, it is very much in the best interests of the logging industry to keep workers out of harm's way, said Jim Geisinger, of the Associated Oregon Loggers.
"It's a dollars and cents issue," he said. "Employers have to buy worker's compensation insurance so it behooves them to keep loggers safe."
The cost of worker's comp can be enormous. Roger Smith, president of RL Smith Logging in Olympia, Wash., said he pays $19 per hour per man to the state for each tree feller and choker setter he employs. He's spent more than $2.3 million for worker's comp over the past 20 years. Smith pays the workers themselves about $20 an hour.
It's not easy to recruit workers, he added. "It's really hard work and a lot of people don't want to work that hard. The pool you're picking from is very thin," Smith said.
Overall, Geisinger said, logging has gotten safer. Just 20 years ago, most felling was done with hand-held chainsaws by loggers standing at the tree trunk. Today, loggers typically sit in the cabins of mechanical tree fellers, which use saws at the end of steel booms. It's safer for loggers because they're farther away from the tree, and protected inside a roofed vehicle.
Even mechanized logging, however, is an inherently dangerous occupation. Loggers are dealing with very heavy and irregularly shaped loads. Tree trunks are not made to stack like wood planks and can shift unexpectedly. Logs can swing around, fall in the wrong place or tumble down hills. Runaway tree trunks can crush limbs and torsos.
When accidents do happen, injured loggers are often in very remote areas, far away from medical help.
Industry experts agree that safety training for loggers is more comprehensive than it used to be, which has translated into safer working conditions, even if that's not reflected in this year's statistics.
"It is, by definition, a very dangerous profession," said Geisinger.