On July 24, faller Jeremy Tanaka was working on northern Vancouver Island when he was struck and killed by a falling hemlock tree.

The tree had been accidentally uprooted by a piece of heavy equipment, striking the unsuspecting faller and killing him. The tragedy of Tanaka’s death is that he was killed in an operation aimed at making the cutblock safer for the hand-falling crew.

Tanaka was the third forest worker killed within a three-week period in July, and before the month was over, another would die. Eight workers have died industry-wide in B.C. this year.

Until a WorkSafeBC investigation is completed, questions about how such an accident could happen, how a machine and a man could be working in such close proximity, remain unanswered.

Was it just a mistake, a breakdown in communications? Or, as many coastal fallers fear, was it a risk arising from “multi-phase logging,” a practice where all phases of logging take place simultaneously on a single cutblock?

According to Port McNeill faller Dazy Weymer, the practice leads to regulations being stressed and people “running a bit close to the line.”

Faller and safety advocate Jake Vandort said he views Tanaka’s death as a litmus test for WorkSafeBC’s commitment to enforce regulations on both companies and contractors.

“If he was killed by a tree that was knocked over by a piece of equipment, obviously, that piece of equipment was within a one-tree-length radius. Even if it wasn’t a requirement, it’s plain common sense to maintain a two-tree-length distance.”

Multi-phase logging compresses all logging activity – from felling the timber to building roads, yarding the logs and trucking them out – into one three-month window.

It provides a quicker response time to market changes, reduces financing costs and reduces the cost of carrying inventory. But cramming so much activity onto one small piece of land has raised the risk for fatalities and serious injuries, said B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris.

Risk can be managed, he said, but it needs close supervision or else conditions can develop that allow accidents to occur.

“That’s the risk you run as an industry when you continue to compress the work site. The more activities you bring into a single area, you are going to bring more risk with it. And with more risk comes greater responsibility on the due diligence side.”

He said WorkSafe should be asking how much congestion can be put into a workplace.

Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention services at WorkSafeBC, said multi-phase logging congestion is only one factor WorkSafe is investigating regarding Tanaka’s death. But because each cutblock has its own challenges, there is no clear threshold where WorkSafe can say the practice has gone too far. It is urging companies to look closely at each situation.

“Part of what we are asking employers to do, and part of what their own advisory groups are asking them to do, is to assess and deal with phase congestion on each of those locations before it becomes an issue,” he said.

Although the WorkSafeBC investigation is not completed, some aspects of the Tanaka fatality lend credence to faller concerns that phase logging congestion could have been a factor.

“We have been fighting against this for a few years now, experiencing many close calls, most of which are unreported,” faller William Harkonen said in a post on his Facebook page.

“I pray that Jeremy Tanaka’s life was not taken in vain. … Jeremy was a great, safe faller, a committed family man leaving four children and wife behind.”

Tanaka was a certified faller who had taken additional training on dangerous tree removal.

WorkSafeBC posted the notice of his death August 4 on its website. It stated: “While attempting to assist a hand faller with a falling difficulty, the operator of a line log loader inadvertently uprooted a large standing hemlock tree. The tree fell into the falling quarter directly below the log loader, and the top of the falling tree struck the faller.”

At an October 2014 safety conference, Darshan Sihota, president of Island Timberlands and a member of the Coast Harvesting Advisory Group, raised the issue of the risk to workers from too many phases operating at one time.

He said the Coast Harvesting Advisory Group is trying to get the message out through videos and posters “reminding everybody that when they think it’s getting too tight and too dangerous, put your hand up, call for a time out, and say, ‘Wait a second, this is getting too difficult. Let’s figure out a better way before somebody really gets in the bight.’”