Modern hazards of logging shown in rediscovered art

Old sketches illustrate dangers that caused 3 logging deaths already this year

jdodge@theolympian.comApril 6, 2014 

Travis Naillon, a third-generation logger from Winlock, Lewis County, knew he had a rare find when he gazed at the seven drawings he discovered in the clutter under his desk.

It was January, and he was settling into his new job as logging safety consultant with the state Department of Labor & Industries, serving as a liaison between the logging industry and the state agency, which both have a goal of reducing logging fatalities across the state.

The watercolor sketches he found beneath his desk hit home. They were seven illustrations of common accidents that happen in logging — one of the most persistently dangerous occupations in the Pacific Northwest.

The seven drawings were the work of Johnny Mildenberger, a graphic artist who worked in L&I’s safety division from 1965 to 1992.

In the early days, Mildenberger worked solo in the division’s education section, going out in the field to photograph hazardous work conditions and fatality scenes, then returning to the office to draw them for use in printed materials to educate logging employers and workers about the hazards of their dangerous profession.

“It took me a day or day and a half to do one of these,” Mildenberger said last week.

The sketches Naillon found were from 1966-68. Some of them were displayed at the 1966 Governor’s Industrial Safety and Health Conference that took place at the former Tyee Motor Inn in Tumwater. Today, poster-sized images of the original drawings are mounted in the rotunda of the agency’s headquarters office in Tumwater, along with a short biography of the artist.

Before joining L&I, Mildenberger, a lifelong artist who attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, was an animator and illustrator for Walt Disney Productions, working on movies including “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “101 Dalmatians” (1961).

Mildenberger enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t steady. “Every time we finished a movie, I got laid off,” he recalled during a visit to the L&I headquarters to see his work on display and bask in the praise of former co-workers, including Ann Soiza, assistant director of L&I’s occupational safety and health program.

“There’s something about your artwork that really captures the scene,” she told him. The sketches portray a 1960s era of logging and landscape. For instance, many of the fallen trees appear to be old-growth timber, which was still very much part of the harvest back then.

There’s also a timeless quality to the art and its messages. Three loggers have died already this year in the woods, all in Lewis County.

The latest fatality was John B. Leonard, 69 and former owner of J.B. Leonard Logging of Chehalis. A falling tree caught a limb about six inches in diameter and 20 feet long, which ricocheted back and struck Leonard while he and a friend were logging near Salkum.

In February, Tyler Bryan, 21, of Toledo was working north of Morton when, according to a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office report, a log being pulled up a slope by a cable began spinning and struck him. One of Mildenberger’s decades-old sketches shows a similar accident involving a cable log swinging out of control and striking a logger.

In January, Alex Oberg, 63, of Toledo was killed while cutting timber alone in the Toledo area.

“The hazards in logging are the same now as they were 50 years ago when he drew these pictures,” Soiza said. “There’s still too many fatalities.”

In a bid to reduce, if not eliminate, logging fatalities and reduce workers’ compensation costs, Labor & Industries has teamed up with the logging industry and the state Department of Natural Resources to create more of a culture of safety in the woods.

The state Logger Safety Initiative launched last year includes a comprehensive safety program that allows L&I and independent third parties to audit logging operations of companies that sign up for the program.

To date, 93 companies representing 60 percent of the manual logging in the state are participating in the program, L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said.

“They’re opening up their workplace to L&I in ways they weren’t comfortable doing before,” Fischer said.

Logging companies that participate save 20 percent on their workers’ compensation premiums, which, at a base rate of $20 per worker per hour, are a huge cost of doing business.

Mildenberger’s artwork will be available for public viewing in the L&I rotunda for about two more weeks. Then the posters will be mounted in one of many hallways in the agency headquarters.

At 85, Mildenberger still paints for pleasure at his Olympia area home. He doesn’t sell his work, but he donates it for auctions that benefit churches and charitable causes.

He seemed genuinely pleased to see the 1960s art recognized again and so prominently displayed.

“I’m just surprised that they were able to find all these sketches,” he said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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