Nine years ago, the Prince George Citizen won the most significant journalism award it has ever received in its century-long history.
Michaelle Jean, then the Governor General of Canada, presented The Citizen with the Michener Award, Canada's highest honour for public service journalism, for the newspaper's work trying to improve the safety of logging truck drivers in B.C.
The Citizen's series, Dying For Work, made up of more than 35 stories by reporter Gordon Hoekstra, resulted in the provincial government appointing a forestry coroner and setting aside $20 million to upgrade B.C. forest roads.
Hoekstra's stories revealed years of negligence towards safety for the drivers hauling harvested logs out of the bush. In the Prince George area alone, more than 30 people had died in the past 10 years leading up to the Dying For Work series. In the space of three months over the winter of 2004-2005, four logging truck drivers were killed in the Central Interior and northern B.C.
The stories also uncovered a host of coroner recommendations from previous deaths, as well as action items from Workers' Compensation Board (now WorkSafeBC) reports, that had been routinely ignored.
In that historical context, WorkSafeBC should be praised for announcing this week that they will be increasing the number of inspections of log trucks after an increase in the number of fatalities this year. Five logging truck drivers have died in 2016 so far, compared to three last year. Two of the five 2016 deaths have been in this region. In August, a driver died near Mackenzie when the trailer he was hauling slid off the side of a muddy road, pulling the truck over with it. In January, a man was killed south of Fraser Lake when the empty logging truck he was trying to fix ran over him.
The late MaryAnne Arcand fought on behalf of logging truck drivers during her years with the B.C. Forest Safety Council and eagerly provided Hoekstra with contacts and background information while he was working on Dying For Work. After the series was published, Arcand credited Hoekstra and the actions of local MLAs Pat Bell and Shirley Bond for saving lives, minimizing her significant role in making a difference.
There are still logging truck drivers dying on the job. Arcand's mission to get all of them home safely to their families must continue.
As in most male-dominated industries, from professional sports to the factory floor, there is a testosterone-fuelled machismo that comes with the job.
With that comes the "git 'r dun" work ethic famously used by the comedian Larry The Cable Guy. There's a job to do and only whiners and losers don't deliver.
As a result, complaining about long hours and unsafe work conditions gets ignored. That's just part of the job. The real men can handle it, the ones who can't go work somewhere else.
Arcand fought hard to defeat this workplace culture, arguing with truckers as only she could that they had normalized their atrocious working conditions and were wrong in their belief that nothing could be done to change those conditions.
She reminded them that no one wants to be hurt on the job. No one wants to leave behind a grieving family because they died at work. Nobody's job is worth that.
The most difficult part of Hoekstra's reporting for Dying For Work wasn't the research, the gathering of records and the Freedom of Information requests to obtain the documents government agencies initially refused to release, it was getting the truckers and their families to talk. When Hoekstra finally earned their trust, they told him horror stories of working 70-hour work weeks driving loaded rigs down steep, narrow, icy roads in the middle of the night, worrying that if they didn't take the job, somebody else would.
The stories from the widows were worse.
One woman was left behind with two teenaged sons. She drove out to the forest road near Burns Lake where her husband died. There, in the snow, she found his glasses and some buttons from his shirt. This is the kind of needless tragedy WorkSafeBC staff are trying to prevent every time they inspect a logging truck.
--Managing editor Neil Godbout