Saturday, February 11, 2017

Tree Planter Training 03 - Worker Health

Although this blog is predominantly focused on my music and DJ’ing career, I also want to share some information about my other career:  Canadian Reforestation.

The information in this post is part of a training series from the website.  More information can be found at this link:

I’ll put the text and audio download link from this training module below, but let’s start with the YouTube video for the module:

Section 03 - “Health”

In this section, we’re going to focus on Health within the reforestation industry. Topics that will be covered include nutrition, fitness, personal protective equipment, physical illness, mental health, ergonomics, and other topics.

In many industries, the two separate topics of Health and Safety are often lumped together.  Although they're usually given lip service as being of the utmost priority, that’s unfortunately not always the case.  Whether the fault lies more with corporate culture or with individual workers is always an interesting debate.

In the Silviculture industry, a significant portion of the workforce is relatively young and inexperienced, and our workplace has more subtle hazards than most factory floors.  We’ll get to those shortly, in the next section about Safety.

Health and Safety are very much related on some levels.  Both of them ultimately affect a worker’s well-being.  The main difference is that Health is mostly concerned with practices that minimize negative effects from injuries or illnesses that develop over long time periods, whereas Safety focuses on injuries that can occur quite quickly and sometimes unexpectedly.

Many workers will be reviewing this material for the first time just a day or two before their first season begins.  If that’s the case, it’s too late to do much about preparatory nutrition or fitness.  However, these are topics that are still important during the season, and which you should also think about when preparing for future planting seasons.  Let’s cover nutrition first.


Nutrition concerns the selection and consumption of foods that impact the growth, repair, and maintenance of our bodies.  What we eat has a direct and immediate effect on how we feel and how well our bodies perform.  The wrong foods lead to a weakened immune system, slow mental and physical processes, and slower healing.  The right foods ensure that you have the energy for good health and productive planting.  They help with recovery so you can plant hard again the next day, and they aid in the building and repairing of tissues.  What you eat and how you eat it is critical in providing an optimal energy flow to your body, which translates directly to more money in your bank accounts.

Complex carbohydrates offer a slow and sustained source of energy.  They take about an hour to digest, depending on how full your stomach is.  Some examples are whole-meal breads and pastas, beans, and root vegetables.  Complex carbs are the most important energy source for planters.  You can also eat simple carbs, such as those found in most sugary foods.  These give quick boosts of energy but often end in a sugar crash.  Carbohydrates are essential to maintaining concentration & coordination, and in supporting your immune system.

Proteins are another source of energy, but they're also used to repair muscle and connective tissue.  When combined with carbs, proteins will slow down your digestion and provide a slower, steady release of energy.  Proteins take a couple hours to digest.  Examples include meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, tofu, dried beans, and lentils.

Fats are also useful, especially if the delay before you need their energy is significant.  Fats slow down the digestion of other foods, and take about three hours to digest.  Essential fatty acids are critical for the tissue repair needed every day after planting.  You can find them in oily fish, canola, nuts, and seeds.

When planning your meals and snacks, don’t just focus on what you feel like eating.  Make sure you have a mix of proteins and carbohydrates and some fats with each meal, and also when you’re snacking throughout the day.  This seems like a lot to think about, but it’s pretty simple.  Mix it up.  On a positive note, you’ll be so hungry that you’ll be eating practically everything in sight, so you should have no problems getting something from each of the three critical categories.

Incidentally, as a first time tree planter, be aware that you’ll lose weight.  In fact, you’ll lose a lot of weight, especially in June and July when you start to get faster and work harder.  Even if losing a few pounds was one of your goals for the planting season, don’t try to watch your weight when you start planting.  Planters that restrict their food intake usually make less money and get sick more frequently.  If you want to restrict your intake of sugary foods, that’s fine.  But trust me, don’t hold back when it comes to large, healthy meals.  You’ll lose weight no matter what, but with large meals containing a good mix of carbs and proteins, it’ll happen in a healthy manner.


Even though I mentioned food first, water is the most essential nutrient.  Without it, the body can’t function properly, and performance is drastically reduced.  Dehydration can make you light-headed and more likely to injure yourself.  It also leads to muscle fatigue, reduced coordination, and muscle cramps.  While planting, dehydration compromises the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating.  This leads to heat exhaustion and, in extreme cases, heat stroke.  I’ve had severe heat exhaustion twice, and in both cases, I felt like death for several days.

You must consume water regularly to replace lost fluids.  The recommendation is half a litre every hour, as a minimum, even on cool spring days.  In other words, you should be going through a four-litre jug every planting day.  If it’s a hot, dry day, you’ll find it easier to force that much water into your system, and in fact, you might easily double that amount per day.  Luckily, you also get a fair amount of fluid in your foods.

Drinking four to eight litres or even more in a day sounds like a lot.  It is, but it isn’t.  You won’t feel like drinking that much, especially on cool or rainy days.  It’ll make you pee a lot.  It’ll turn the contents of your intestines and bowels into things that I don’t want to describe here, and you’ll quickly get used to “using the facilities” in your planting area.  But drinking that much water is healthy, and it’s necessary.

Drinking small amounts of water frequently is the most efficient way to absorb water into the bloodstream.  When you come back to your cache after a run, you may not feel like drinking half a litre or an entire litre all at once, and your stomach may hate you if you try.  I like to bring a couple of four-litre jugs that I keep at my cache, and then carry two smaller water bottles in my planting bags.  I fill the small bottles every time I’m back at the cache, then while I’m out planting, I can take a quick fifteen second pause every fifteen or twenty minutes to drink half of one of the small bottles. 

Water containing electrolytes (salts & sugars, powdered juices or Gatorades, or other sports drinks) can be useful, but don’t overdo it.  The pre-mixed liquid sports drinks sold in stores have much higher concentrations than they should for the volumes of water involved.  If you’re mixing your own, mix it to about a third of the strength of store-bought pre-mix.  A tiny bit of flavor is an indication that it’s strong enough; it doesn’t have to taste like sweetened juice.

Alcohol, Drugs, & Tobacco

Alcohol, taken even in small amounts, dulls your judgment, slows your reflexes, reduces your coordination, and increases your fatigue.  That’s why it’s categorized as a depressant.  All of these effects will have a negative impact on your planting, and you’ll earn less.  Many drugs have the same effect.

It only takes an average-sized person about an hour or so to metabolize an ounce and a half of alcohol or can of beer, so its intoxicating effects have worn off.  However, it takes about three times as long before the full metabolic effects are worn off.  Drink a case of beer, and you’re looking at about thirty-six hours before you’re back to normal.  During that time, your body is not getting proper rest, nor are your tissues healing as effectively as they could be.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against alcohol.  I’ve worked for years in the off-seasons as a bar manager and a bartender, and personally, I'm quite fond of alcohol.  However, the planting industry has changed quite a bit over the past few decades, at the same time that our Canadian culture has slowly cut back on alcohol consumption, and people have realized that there’s a time and a place for it.  Many people will have a few drinks on the night before a day off, and if that’s something that you want to do, I see nothing wrong with it.  Just don’t overdo it, and try to stay away from any alcohol at all on a work night.  It’ll just mess up your sleep.

Stay away from caffeine or stronger stimulants.  A can of Pepsi or an energy drink might seem like a good idea to give you a burst of energy – trust me, I’ve tried them many times.  But you’ll probably soon find that the crash as they wear off negates any benefits that you got from the burst of energy in the first place.  Also, caffeine stays in the system for about twelve hours, so an energy drink in the afternoon will reduce the effectiveness of your sleep in the evening.  And finally, caffeine and other stimulants increase the amount of water lost in your urine.  In the long term, any kind of stimulant often has more of a negative effect than a positive one.

As far as smoking goes, it should go without saying that everybody watching this, including the smokers, know just how unhealthy it is to be a smoker.  Unfortunately, planting has a way of turning some people into smokers, and it’s a habit that they come to hate later in life.  My only suggestion, if you’re just starting to plant and you’re not a smoker now, is to resist any temptation to get started in the first place.  You only have one body and one set of lungs.

Fitness & Avoiding Injuries

Being fit is a smart idea going into a planting season.  You don’t necessarily have to have full-scale daily workouts for half a year before the season starts.  To be honest, no type of workout can truly mimic what your body will experience when you start planting.  However, maintaining a minimum level of regular activity, especially in the four weeks leading up to the start of a season, can have a huge positive effect.

Musculoskeletal Injuries are also known as MSI’s.  They include sprains, strains, and tears, and they’re a huge problem in the planting industry, sometimes preventing planters from being able to plant for several days or even longer.  Common problems include back injuries, knee problems, and especially tendonitis in the hands or wrists.  Some are also referred to as Repetitive Strain Injuries, or RSI’s.

Most MSI’s can be avoided, to a large extent, through overall fitness.  This includes long-term strengthening and stretching, short term warming-up, the use of rest strategies, and by using movements that minimize the potential for contributing to issues.  Tree planting is just about the furthest thing possible from a regular job.  The smartest planters will prepare for their season in advance with some sort of regular activity program, such as the eight week "Fit To Plant" program that you can find online.

Trying to include most of the information from the "Fit To Plant" program in this series of videos would be just impossible.  It's a very comprehensive program designed by Delia Roberts of Selkirk College, which has been proven to be quite successful in bringing people up to a high level of fitness in preparation for a season of planting.  Planters who have followed this program in experimental situations have been proven to be significantly more productive during their seasons, which means more money in the bank.  I can't recommend this program strongly enough.  It can be found online, it's free, and it's a great way to tailor a simple fitness program to some activities that can specifically develop parts of your body that are used most intensely during planting activities.  Even if you're just learning about "Fit To Plant" now and your season is only a few days away, make a note to look into it next year, for the two months before you start planting again.  It's well worth the time invested.

One ten-year analysis of tree planting injuries done by WorkSafe BC gave the following breakdown of reported lost-time injuries:
  26%   Arms, wrists, hands, and fingers
  27%   Backs, chests, hips, shoulders, and trunks
  33%   Legs, ankles, feet, and toes
  14%   Everything else

However, this is an older study, and I suspect it was biased because a lot of times, when someone gets tendonitis and misses a couple days, it probably doesn’t usually get reported to WorkSafe.  If I had to guess, I’d bet that if a planter misses a day of work due to some sort of short-term or long-term injury, the odds are probably greater than 50/50 that it’s directly related to tendonitis or an MSI.  Aside from pre-season training, here are some suggestions to minimize MSI’s:
  - Eat healthy, and sleep well.
  - Stretch before planting.
  - If you find that a particular part of your body seems to getting aggravated, see if you can adjust your technique (perhaps by switching planting hands).
  - If you notice any of the initial signs of injury, such as swelling, tendon soreness, or creaking tendons, slow down or rest for the remainder of the day, in the hopes of avoiding a greater amount of long-term downtime.
  - Make sure your bags are adjusted properly, and your shovel techniques are appropriate.
  - If you’re a first-year planter, don’t try to keep up with experienced planters.  Be realistic.  Experienced planters have learned subtle techniques that allow their bodies to move gracefully with a minimum of aggravation.
  - In the longer term, consider learning to plant ambidextrously.

Some MSI’s can be noticed early, and managed with tape, tensor bandages, or braces, restricting the movement of the affected part and possibly preventing more significant injuries.  Taping with athletic tape can ease some of the tension and stress placed on ligaments by limiting the amount of stretching they can do, and preventing tears.  However, there are two slight problems with these treatments.  First, first aid kit contents as recommended by WorkSafe BC do not include athletic tape, for the simple reason that taping is a preventative measure, not a treatment of an injury that has already occurred.  Secondly, first aid attendants are not taught how to tape people.  Since they're not skilled at performing these treatments properly, they can be quite ineffective.  Even worse, they can give a planter a false sense of security, which leads the planter to keep pushing hard and injure themselves more significantly.

I'll talk more in another section about ambidextrous planting, but I'd like to mention it quickly now.  You should practice the constant use of both hands and feet by trying to learn ambidextrous planting, which means planting using both sides of your body equally.  Your trainers may mention this, but nobody will ever force you to become an ambidextrous planter.  It's something you have to learn on your own initiative, and it's something you really need to try to learn from the beginning, when you first start planting.  Ambidextrous planting might seem like a waste of time.  It's not.  If you learn to plant "ambi," you'll significantly reduce the strain on certain parts of your body.  Ambidextrous planting is a great way to reduce the risk of getting MSI's.  Some companies have been reluctant to encourage ambidextrous planting because they were initially concerned about higher minimum-wage top-up during the training period.  However, many of these companies have come to realize that the long-term benefits of higher production and less long-term downtime make it smart to support this type of training.

Ergonomics is the practice of designing equipment that fits a person’s body properly, to minimize potential for injury.  We’ll talk about this in the planting gear tutorial.

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment is often referred to as your PPE.  Remember this.  Write it down.  You’ll probably be asked about this by an auditor someday.

PPE is any type of equipment or clothing that protects a worker from a short-term or long-term hazard.  Some types of PPE that relate to short-term Safety will be discussed in the next section.  Some types of PPE are more applicable to long-term health, especially in terms of clothing.

Clothing is your main barrier against the elements.  It keeps you dry, provides warmth on cold days, protects you from the sun, and offers some protection from insects.  Wise clothing choices can also minimize MSI’s by keeping key muscles warm.  If you’re ever asked what PPE you have available to you, you can start by listing some of your clothing!  Rain gear protects you from getting too wet and cold, thus minimizes your risks of hypothermia.  Gloves have become a staple in the industry in the past five or ten years as better materials have led to the development of thinner, stronger gloves that are perfect for planters.  Gloves can keep your hands warm on days when you’re planting in cold, wet ground.  They can also protect you from chemical exposure, cuts, infections, and they even provide a level of padding from your shovel.  Long pants and long sleeves can protect you from sunburn, cold, insects, and cuts.  Stay away from cotton unless the weather is guaranteed to stay warm all day.  A combination of wool and polypropylene is recommended for warmth and breathability.  Many people wear two layers of socks to prevent blisters, with a polypropylene inner layer and wool or bama socks over top.  Other people use what's called a compression sock, similar to what some high-performance athletes and long-distance runners wear.  Also, make sure that you always carry raingear and some extra dry clothing in your day-bag, even on days when it doesn't look like it's going to rain.  Being comfortable is a big part of being productive, and the weather in the BC mountains can sometimes change drastically in the space of as little as twenty minutes.

Footwear should be selected that minimizes foot and ankle injuries, slips and falls, and blisters.  Getting good boots is a critical investment.  You’ll probably want to work them in gradually during the couple weeks before the season starts.  There are all kinds of choices, and choosing what’s best depends on your personal situation.  Some people wear leather work boots.  Some people go for old army boots from a surplus store, if you can find them.  Some people wear rain boots, which are great in wet conditions, although they can be a bit heavier than other boots.  Some people wear caulk boots (pronounced “cork”), which are chain-saw boots with steel spikes on the bottom to ensure you have more stable footing on slopes or wet slash.  Caulks are great, although they're often a bit heavier.  Some people bring two pairs of boots, so they have a choice for different conditions, or a dry pair if one pair gets soaked.  There are lots of online discussions in tree planting forums about what experienced planters recommend as the best type of boot to buy, and many conflicting opinions.  I’d recommend that you look up some online forums if you want advice, or check with your foreman.  At a minimum, you should show up with waterproof boots that provide ankle support.  Some people try to save money when it comes to buying boots.  This is not a good place to skimp.  Investing in high quality footwear will pay off many times over throughout your season.

Planters don’t wear sunglasses, even on the brightest of days.  Sunglasses get sweaty and dirty quite quickly, and it’s very difficult to see into a shaded planting hole if you’re wearing them.

Minimizing the Risk of Illness

The last thing you want to do is get sick while planting, knowing that you’re losing a couple hundred dollars every day that you’re in your tent.  In addition, viruses or bacteria can spread through a crew or camp like wildfire, putting an entire contract at risk.  I’ve been in two camps where over 90% of the planters suddenly contracted an unknown flu or other disease over the course of a single shift, and missed days of work.  A disease outbreak can be demoralizing, can mess up schedules and put additional pressure on staff and the other planters, and can have serious health implications.  That’s not even considering the misery of spending two days shivering in a damp tent while you’re alternating between bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. 

There are seven simple ways to have a very significant impact on reducing the spread of a major outbreak.  Pay close attention to these, because these are really important:
- Wash your hands frequently around camp, especially before and after meals, and in particular after using the outhouses.  Incidentally, outhouses in every camp should have liquid antibacterial sanitizer bottles as an alternative to a hand-wash station.  Ask for them if your camp doesn’t have them.  Your cooks and supervisor should recognize the value of antibacterial sanitizers.
- Try to wear reasonably clean clothes, since bacteria collects in fabric.  Try to have enough work clothes that you can change into clean clothes every day.  If you don't have enough, go to Value Village or the Salvation Army on your next day off.
- Shower regularly.  This also cuts down on infections from cuts on your arms or legs.  You can also sweat more effectively if you're not covered with a layer of dirt.
- Try not to share water bottles on the block, or alcohol containers on the night off.  Don’t justify it by saying, “The alcohol will kill the germs!”  Just mix a drink for yourself, instead of drinking directly out of the bottle.  The crew that drinks together sometimes vomits together.
- Don’t drink out of streams, ponds, or other non-potable water.  Non-potable water can contain parasites and other nasty biologicals.
- Strive for cleanliness in food serving areas.  Be respectful around the lunch table, and use the serving utensils provided, rather than picking up food with your hands.  If you see someone else using their fingers, tell them to use the utensils provided.
- Trucks are vectors of disease.  Don't leave dirty clothing in the crew trucks.  Try to help ensure that the trucks are kept as clean as possible.  If you become a driver someday, wash the inside of your truck regularly.  If you're sick, don't go to work if there's a risk that you'll infect the rest of your crew on the drive to the block.

Mental Health

Tree planting can be really stressing and/or depressing.  Here are some of the reasons why:
- Relationships at home:  It can be hard to be away from friends, family, or a significant other for three or four months straight.
- Isolation:  It’s common on planting blocks to be able to see several other planters working a few hundred meters away, but you’ll often be working in a piece by yourself.  Hopefully you don’t get lonely.
- Boredom:  Planting is tedious and repetitive, especially if you’re planting in a piece by yourself.  Think of ways to keep yourself mentally amused.  Think about how you’ll spend the money you’re earning.
- Remote Living:  You may end up pretty far away from television, internet, or telephones for days or weeks at a time.  Bring something to keep yourself amused when you’re not planting, like a few thick books, or a tablet full of movies and music.
- Living Closely with Others:  Living with the same small group of people for several months in an isolated location can be pretty fun.  More often though, people can get on each others’ nerves.  Try to be patient and put yourself in the other person’s shoes when conflicts arise.  They’re dealing with the same problems that you are.
- Daily Challenges:  They’re a part of tree planting – insects, bad weather, heat, mud, exhaustion, aching muscles, scrapes, cuts, blisters, hunger, thirst, and those really annoying birds that dive-bomb you and make a weird screeching noise.

Take a quick break to review what we’ve learned about Health. Our next section will cover Working Safety, and Hazards.


Here’s an Audio version of this material, in case you want to listen while you’re driving, running, at work, or otherwise unable to read or watch video:

Click on the down-arrow icon in the upper right corner of the SoundCloud widget to download the mp3.

Once again, for further information about this series of tree planter training information, visit:

I encourage you to share this information with anyone else who might be interested.  Thanks for your interest and support!

-          Jonathan “Scooter” Clark