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Improving Logging Safety Through Location

College of Natural Resources team is studying the use of GPS-enabled devices to improve safety for workers in the forest.

Each year, hundreds of workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing industries die as a result of on-the-job injuries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For 2015, the combined fatal work injury rate for those industries was 22.8 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. The fields remain among the most dangerous in the nation. The next most dangerous fields — transportation and warehousing — come in at just 13.8 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.

It’s a huge concern for states like Idaho, where natural resources and associated industries contribute more than $5.4 billion to Idaho’s economy annually, according to the UI Policy Analysis Group.

Researchers in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources want to help.

In 2015, UI alumnus and Assistant Professor Rob Keefe, director of UI’s Experimental Forest, received an $825,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to explore ways that technology can improve safety in the logging industry.

Logging has the highest fatal work injury rate, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics recording 132.7 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers in 2015.

“Idaho is a rural, resource-based economy. We have forestry, fisheries, agriculture — they are a big part of our economy in the state, and also three of the most dangerous professions,” Keefe said. “Since that’s the case, it’s really important that we’re conducting research at the university and in CNR that will help to make sure our rural workers are in safe conditions and not subject to accidents or fatalities as part of the work they do that’s driving our economy.”

The grant is now entering its final year, and Keefe and his research team are focused on using their findings to develop guidelines the logging industry can use to improve the safety of its workers.

“A lot of our goal has really been to involve loggers in the process and work toward solutions that they’re happy with and willing to use,” Keefe said. “If they’re not happy with new technology, then no matter what we do, it’s just not going to have an impact.”

Assistant Professor Rob Keefe
Assistant Professor Rob Keefe
Doctoral student Eloise Zimbelman
Doctoral student Eloise Zimbelman works on an experiment analyzing GPS-enabled devices in UI’s Experimental Forest

Real-World Problems

Keefe’s interest in the safety of forest workers was piqued after he joined the UI faculty in 2012. During a regional tour of forestry companies, he heard recurring concerns from employers about the safety of their workers and fatalities on the job.

“Safety is not something I had envisioned myself doing a lot of research on in the past,” Keefe said, but he has become passionate about finding ways to help logging crews and others in natural resources work safer.

The issue Keefe’s team is working to address is location-based. Crews often pair heavy machinery with ground crew members, and it’s difficult to keep track of everyone. Crew members hand-cutting trees — known as fallers — can lose sight of co-workers, and risk putting a tree down on another employee. Fallers working alone can be hurt with no way to tell others where they are.

Keefe and his team are exploring how GPS-based devices could allow crew members to be more aware of where they are relative to their coworkers, improving safety and increasing response times in case of injury, as well as use of geofences to let others in the forest know where certain activities are happening.

His pilot research, funded by CNR’s Forest Utilization Research budget, used the tracking devices from hunting dog collars. The results were promising enough that NIOSH awarded Keefe’s team $825,000 to dig deeper. The project has garnered support from U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, the Associated Logging Contractors, as well as others in the forestry industry.

Other faculty on the grant include Alistair Smith, a professor of wildland fire science and director of CNR’s research and graduate studies; Extension forestry specialist Professor Randall Brooks; Soren Newman, a research associate in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; and Jan Eitel, a research assistant professor based at the McCall Field Campus.

Critical to the project is Keefe’s team of student researchers: master’s students Ann Wempe and Darko Veljkovic and doctoral students Eloise Zimbelman and Ryer Becker, all studying in CNR’s Department Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences. Over a dozen undergraduate research technicians also participated.

“We have really outstanding, top-notch students who have been hired to work on this,” Keefe said.

It’s also one of the most productive grants he’s ever worked on, Keefe said. He expects the work to produce six to eight peer-reviewed papers, as well as outreach materials to help loggers and foresters get familiar with emerging technologies. The team has made eight presentations at national forestry conferences. The researchers also presented a poster at NIOSH’s National Occupational Research Agenda conference in June in Colorado, and they will present the outcomes of their research in spring 2018 at Idaho’s Logger Education to Advance Professionalism (LEAP) certification program, as well as other professional logger education programs for neighboring states.

Doctoral student Eloise Zimbelman and Assistant Professor Rob Keefe
Doctoral student Eloise Zimbelman and Assistant Professor Rob Keefe work on an experiment in UI’s Experimental Forest.

Focus on Technology

Much of the project research has taken place in UI’s Experimental Forest, a 10,000-acre network of research forests throughout the state managed by CNR. The the team runs its designed experiments in the main Experimental Forest management areas on Moscow Mountain to test things like how the levels of canopy coverage, the slope of the hill, and whether a device being stationary or mobile impacts it accuracy during logging.

“We’re trying to figure out which system might be the best,” Zimbelman said.

They’ve tested everything from military-grade GPS devices to readily available consumer products, as well as technology that turns cellphones into radios and works without access to a cellular network.

“We’ve found different technologies work better than others. We’ve evaluated some fairly expensive radios that don’t work very well under the canopy. On the other hand, we’ve used consumer-grade technology that works very well,” Keefe said.

One of the devices they are experimenting with is goTenna. This technology allows users to share the GPS locations from their smartphones with each other in remote areas using small radios that are connected to the phones using Bluetooth technology. These devices are marketed for outdoor recreation because they also allows users to send text when they don’t have cell service.

“We want to know what can be modified to work,” Wempe said. “So for instance, the goTennas can work with an app. Can we create an app that’s more directed to foresters and to loggers that is more useful for them?“

Wempe and Zimbelman come from biology backgrounds and weren’t specifically looking for forestry projects when they joined Keefe.

“I just really liked sciences and natural sciences,” said Zimbelman, who received her undergraduate in biology from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “Growing up in the Northwest, I’ve always appreciated forestry.”

She joined the project as a research technician while trying to figure out what to study in grad school. Keefe encouraged her to apply for the doctoral program at CNR, and she’s now fully funded through the grant and has co-authored two peer-reviewed papers and has a third in review.

Wempe, who will graduate from UI in spring 2018, studied wildlife biology at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, and moved to Pullman two years ago with her husband, a post-doctorate at Washington State University. She joined CNR as an administrative assistant and Keefe encouraged her to pursue her master’s degree, and she also is now funded through the grant.

“For this project, I look for students to have a strong foundation in the basic sciences,” Keefe said. “Both Ann and Eloise have extremely high attention to detail. NIOSH expects us to have top-level research for public safety applications. All of our methods need to be replicable and very carefully designed and evaluated beforehand. They both enjoy learning about new material and are interested in exploring new questions to help develop the science. “

Future Applications

As the project enters its final year, Keefe is pleased with the results of the experiments and the diligence shown by his research team. He’s confident they have results that will help logging crews improve job-site safety.

“We’re developing recommendations that will work for loggers. We take that very seriously,” Keefe said. “Those need to be guidelines that will make people safer and not more dangerous, which can happen if you do things incorrectly. It’s also important that we work with the loggers and the agency about what those recommendations are and how they’re best presented to the public.”

There are also opportunities for the research to have an impact in other industries.

“We are focused on safety, but what we’ve found is that the same technology – being able to see where everybody is – is important for production forestry, defense and military applications, and recreation” Keefe said. “It’s important for emergency response, especially wildland firefighting, probably even more than logging safety.”

Keefe is working on additional grant applications in order to continue the research and see how his team’s findings can be applied to other industries.


Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing

This project, “Reducing logging safety injuries with GPS-VHF communications and monitoring,” was funded under National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health grant No. 5U01OH010841. The total amount of federal funds for the project is $825,000, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the project.

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