Living

County Face: Roger Gagnon of Washburn

Roger Gagnon has been enjoying the first weeks of his retirement and is looking forward to keeping busy with driver’s education and possibly basketball officiating.  

“Basically, I’ve been taking it easy,” said Gagnon, who turns 65 on April 25 and retired from the Maibec lumber mill in Masardis in late March after 25 years as safety manager.

Gagnon, who grew up in Presque Isle and lives in Washburn, led a culture change in safety at what was then the J. Paul Levesque sawmill in the 1990s. After serving in the Navy out of high school and working as a quality assurance manager at Loring Air Force Base, Gagnon became the mill’s first safety manager in 1993 and faced a daunting challenge for the 350-person workforce.

“At the time, Maine had some terrible injury and illness rates across the state and a lot of workers compensation insurers were thinking about leaving the state because it was so bad,” Gagnon recalled.

In the early 1990s, when someone mentioned a sawmill, “You’d think of a dangerous facility,” he said. “Back in those days, the priority was production and that was true of quite a few employers. There were a lot of unsafe conditions throughout the facility.”

Maine’s worker injury problem at the time was so bad that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration started a pilot program just for the state and focused on the 200 companies with the worst injury records.

“We were number 95 on that list. There were some other Aroostook County companies on that list as well,” Gagnon said, adding that Bath Iron Works was number one.

The three-year OSHA program required employers to address high injury rates and institute new safety procedures and equipment, or else face inspections and possible fines.

Through equipment such as machine and saw guards and new procedures, the mill drastically reduced worker injury rates and the company’s worker compensation costs.

In addition to machine guards, one of the key changes was a strict “walk-out, tag-out” system for keeping machines shut off while workers are maintaining them.

“We implemented it when I started. If anybody violated the walk-out, tag out, they’d get a three-day suspension, and they’d be fired on second offense,” Gagnon said.

Most workplace injuries are “due to unsafe behaviors, not unsafe conditions,” he said.

The mill also empowered supervisors to look for unsafe behaviors and practices in general and develop cooperative, non-punitive solutions with employees.

“That really started to change the culture in our mill. I always had upper-level management support. Without that you’re not going to succeed,” Gagnon said.

“Your biggest fear is a workplace fatality. Fortunately we never had one in my 25 years.”

Industrial facilities with strong safety records are also more profitable. “We were able to save a lot of money,” Gagnon said.

In 2006, the Levesque mill was the first lumber mill in the U.S. to be certified under the OSHA Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, or SHARP.

“When you become SHARP certified, they take you off their inspection list for two years and you get a 5 percent reduction on workers comp,” Gagnon explained. The mill is now insured through the Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Company and regularly receives dividends for a low-injury rate.

After a long career in safety, Gagnon has plans to stay busy with part-time jobs.

He’s continuing to teach driving in Easton, Mars Hill and Washburn, as well as working as a driver for University of Maine Presque Isle athletic teams. He’s also considering a return to refereeing high school basketball games, something he did previously for 35 years.

“I’m thinking about getting back into that in the 18-19 season. I kind of missed it,” Gagnon noted.

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