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OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov.
May 14, 2001
Mr. Jim Critchlow
723 Walker Street
Missoula, MT 59804
Dear Mr. Critchlow:
Thank you for your March 10, 2001, letter to Congressman Denny Rehberg concerning the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Logging Operations standard. Your letter has been forwarded to OSHA's Directorate of Compliance Programs for a response.
In your letter, you raise concerns about certain tree felling provisions in the rule, namely the provision that requires backcuts to be above the level of the horizontal facecut in Humboldt cutting operations [29 CFR 1910.266(h)(2)(vii)]. Specifically, you raise concerns that the rule was promulgated without input from timber fallers, and that the backcut provision "came from the east coast" and does not work in Montana or Idaho. You also said you were concerned that the rule's backcut requirement "totally negates the use of an underhand face cut," (i.e., Humboldt cutting method), and that by the time the tree breaks the one-inch platform there would not be enough wood to control the tree, which you said would put you in danger.
First, regarding the rulemaking process, the promulgation of the OSHA Logging Operations standard involved input, comments, and testimony from numerous logging industry stakeholders throughout the country. West coast loggers and logging associations, such as the Montana Logging Association, Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho, Associated Oregon Loggers, and Washington Contract Loggers Association, were active participants throughout the rulemaking process. In addition, OSHA held hearings on the proposed rule in Portland, Oregon, as well as Washington, D.C., to ensure that the record fully reflected the views of timber fallers from the west coast.
Regarding the standard's backcut requirements, OSHA raised an issue in the proposed rule about where the backcut should be made and received many comments from stakeholders. A number of commenters said that requiring backcuts to be placed above the horizontal face cut was necessary to prevent trees from kicking back and hitting or crushing fellers. These commenters pointed to similar requirements in several states' logging standards, including Oregon, Washington, and Michigan. After reviewing the evidence in the record, OSHA decided that the backcut requirement was necessary to protect fellers and included the following requirement in the final rule that was issued on October 12, 1994 (59 FR 51697): "The backcut shall be above the level of the horizontal cut of the undercut."
Several months after the final rule was issued, a group of stakeholders asked OSHA to further clarify the backcut requirement. Specifically, they asked OSHA to explain whether this requirement applied to the Humboldt cutting method, and, if so, how far above the horizontal cut the backcut must be. After consideration of the stakeholders' questions, OSHA stayed enforcement of the backcut requirement in Humboldt cutting operations for six months to clarify the regulatory text and preamble (60 FR 6447, February 8, 1995).
During the six-month stay, OSHA met with representatives of various logging associations, including the Western Logging Council, and carefully reviewed the record on the issue. The record indicated that in several regions the Humboldt cutting method has replaced the conventional method, primarily for productivity rather than safety reasons. This is because in Humboldt cutting, as opposed to the conventional method, the notch is made into the stump rather than the log, which reduces the loss of useable wood. In addition, if the backcut is placed at the same level as the horizontal cut, fellers would not have to make an additional cut after the tree is felled in order to smooth out the log butt, which is necessary for some contractors and mills. Because of the standard's backcut requirement, fellers, in some cases, might have to walk down a hill to where a tree has rolled in order to make the additional cut. However, the additional cut could also be done by the employee who bucks the tree or it could be smoothed up at the landing, particularly in situations where making the additional cut in the woods might expose the feller or bucker to other hazards. As a result, OSHA does not believe that the potential need to make an additional cut "totally negates" the Humboldt cutting method.
One of the reasons why OSHA determined it was necessary to apply the backcut requirement to Humboldt cutting operations was that the record indicated that in logging operations where the Humboldt cutting method is most heavily used, fellers most often cut a notch that is no greater than 45 degrees. Evidence in the rulemaking record indicated that a notch of 45 degrees or less, which is similar to the size of the notch in conventional cutting, does not fully address the hazard of kickback. That is, if the notch is no greater than 45 degrees, it will close early, and the hinge will break too soon (i.e., before the tree hits the ground), and the tree could kick back off the stump.
The record included many reports of employee deaths and injuries because of tree kickbacks. Given this evidence, OSHA determined that when fellers use cutting methods where the notch is generally no greater than 45 degrees, regardless of whether that notch is above (conventional method) or below (Humboldt method) the horizontal cut, it is necessary to place the backcut above the horizontal cut to provide a platform to block the tree from kicking back once the hinge breaks. Thus, at the end of the stay, OSHA clarified the purpose of the backcut requirement and its application to Humboldt cutting: "The backcut shall be above the level of the horizontal facecut in order to provide an adequate platform to prevent kickback" (29 CFR 1910.266(h)(2)(vii); 60 FR 47022, 47027-28, September 8, 1995). (A copy of the relevant portions of the clarification document is attached.)
At that time, OSHA stressed that its determination to apply the backcut requirement to Humboldt cutting was based on the openness of the notch employees were making rather than the type of cutting method they were using. And, as mentioned, OSHA had found that most fellers using the Humboldt method were making the notch the same size as loggers who used conventional felling methods. In fact, OSHA also said it would clarify in the compliance directive that where the notch is at least 70 degrees, it is not as critical that the backcut be above the horizontal cut, regardless of whether the open face or Humboldt cutting method is being used. Thus, in another way, the rule does not "totally negate" the use of the Humboldt method. The backcut requirement, as it applies to Humboldt cutting, has been upheld by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Don Brown Logging v. OSHRC, No. 99-70181, slip op. (9th Cir., November 14, 2000).
Finally, your letter also mentions that a one-inch platform does not always provide "enough wood to control the tree properly." Although OSHA mentioned a one-inch platform in the preamble discussion of the backcut requirement, the Agency intended that a one-inch platform be viewed as a minimum rather than maximum vertical platform (60 FR 47028). The Logging Operations standard does not prohibit fellers from making the backcut more than one inch above the horizontal cut in order to have an adequate margin of safety against kickback. In fact, OSHA pointed out that the Washington and Michigan logging standards both required the backcut be at least two inches above the horizontal cut of the undercut.
Thank you for taking time to write us about your concerns regarding the OSHA logging standard and for your interest in occupational safety and health. If you have any further questions, please contact the [Office of General Industry Enforcement] at 202-693-1866
R. Davis Layne
Acting Assistant Secretary