Oregon loggers endure, enjoy 'worst job in America'

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by Pat Dooris

KGW

Posted on May 2, 2012 at 10:39 AM

VERNONIA, Ore. -- Since the days before Oregon was a state, loggers have trudged into the hills to cut trees. “Timber!” shouted a logger as he worked recently in the hills near Vernonia.

In the 1950's, 90,000 Oregonians worked in the logging industry. The industry is still around but it's a shadow of its old self.

Now, the Oregon Department of Forestry reports that 47,000 people make their living in logging and associated jobs.

 Forest products generated $12.6 billion in revenue in Oregon during 2,000, which was the last year the number was totaled. Average pay is nearly $44,000 a year. That's 8% higher than the average Oregon worker makes but in real terms its less than loggers made 30 years ago. Increases have not kept up with inflation, according to a report from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis .

Those are just a few reasons many consider logging the worst job in America.

Then there are the hours.

Keith Morris drove 75 miles from his home in Estacada to his job site in Vernonia. "My alarm goes off at 2 a.m. I get up, do my morning stuff, on the road by 2:30, get out here at 4 a.m. and usually work 10 to 12 [hours],” said Morris.

That's ten to 12 hours of rocking back and forth operating from his control seat inside a machine called a feller buncher. It sits on huge steel tracks similar to a tank and reaches out with a front arm that looks like an excavator except that it has pinchers on the end that grab the tree trunk as a chain saw swings out and cuts the tree. The machine then swings and drops the tree onto a growing pile nearby.

“I love my job, it’s a good job. I enjoy the outdoors,” Morris said. He makes $21 dollars an hour. "Well, I'm 58 and uh, when I leave the timber industry I’m gonna have basically what I brought with me. Not much,” he said.

And then there's the danger.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that by many measures logging is the "most dangerous" job in America. Why? The machines are potentially deadly, the trees, massive and often at risk of rolling or sliding once they are down. Add in nasty Northwest weather and you can see why it’s so easy to get hurt or killed on the job.

Only fishing has a higher death rate according to a 2012 report by the Department of Labor.

“Worst job? No. Dangerous? Yeah. Got a lot of danger to it,” said Shawn Gibson as he paused from cutting trees with his chain saw. His left hand is bandaged. He removes the wrapping to reveal an inch-long slit that slices into the back of his hand at his middle knuckle.

“I was cuttin above my head and was hanging onto a branch and when I cut the branch it sucked my saw right down through," Gibson explained. That’s just his most recent injury.

In the past, he slashed his leg with part of his chainsaw and another time slipped under a falling tree which broke his leg. “Other than that, I broke my back once climbing, fell out of a tree at about 40 feet. Snapped two vertebrates and compressed one," Gibson said.

Still, he loves the job. “It’s pretty much a one-man thing out here,” he said.

Company owner Mike Pihl feels the danger too. “I've ruptured my kidneys, chipped my spine, or vertebrate, broke my hand, and then just all the other stuff you don’t go to the doctor for," Pihl said. He was also airlifted off Mt. St. Helens when a piece of equipment hit him in the head.

He’s not sure what the future holds for his industry. Pihl normally runs a crew of 45 but with the recession he’s down to 23 employees.  Still, he's logged for 34 years and plans to bring his young son, Matt, into the family business one day.

“To the average schmuck it probably is the worst job. You gotta get up early. The pay really hasn’t been changed in 25 years but it’s in your blood," he said. "I mean, if you grew up as a logger that’s all you ever want to do. It’s all I want to do. It’s just, just the way we grew up."

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