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NZ Forestry and Market Madness

While we can be grateful that we have not been burying forestry workers at the same rate, we cannot allow our forestry industry to continue to operate in the same way.

We are a disgrace by international standards.

The New Zealand forestry industry has been the subject of many recent media reports, some of which are recorded in a previous post New Zealand Forestry Industry out of control.

Last year (2013) saw our highest number of fatalities, with 10 forestry deaths being recorded across the country. As was noted recently by the Rotorua Coroner, we rate very poorly by international standards; countries with significantly larger operations having less than 10 fatalities a year.

To date, there has been one fatality on the 16th January.

What happened – did the industry suddenly develop a conscience?

No. It has taken intervention by WorkSafe, our safety watchdog, which has been working its way through a nationwide investigation, looking to identify unsafe operators, and where necessary shut down dangerous operations and ensure that unacceptable industry practices are stopped or rectified. The attention the industry has been receiving and the possibility of prosecution is no doubt a catalyst for the sudden reduction in the number of deaths.

While there have been prosecutions in respect of some of last year’s fatalities, the Council of Trade Unions has not been satisfied with the threshold of responsibility and has taken its own prosecutions in at least two cases. This is as much though, if not more, to do with compensation for families, than the safety of workers.

Has the leopard changed its spots – is our forestry industry now a safe place for men to earn a living?

I don’t think so.

For all that WorkSafe may have achieved to date, I doubt they could (hand on heart) say that their interventions have resolved the underlying issues affecting the health of the industry. Our forestry industry like others has been carved up by market forces and competition, creating a low wage limited skill industry that has little respect for the lives and welfare of the men it engages to work in the field of operation.

The change will need to come from within the industry – it must not be allowed to continue to be a place for investors looking for cut price rates to make the best return ‘on their investment’ without responsibility for the human cost expended in creating that return.

That as such, is not a forestry operation, nor is it a business, nor should it be allowed to be an acceptable business practice in a supposedly civilised country.

Reform of the forestry industry is far from over. There must first be a significant culture change amongst stakeholders; an acceptance of responsibility, an acceptance that the industry is obliged to skill, protect and provide for the on-going maintenance of its workforce.

The industry must be held to account not only for deaths but also for the serious-harm accidents which can cause a family even greater hardship and financial pain than a death, when they are left to care for a disabled worker.

Serious harm accident statistics from 2008 – 2013 are shown in the following table.

2008 179
2009 161
2010 170
2011 182
2012 188
2013 87

At face value it appears that there has been a significant drop in the number of serious-harm accidents for 2013 – this is not the case however, and a change in the reporting criteria to meet a new serious-harm threshold has caused the anomaly.

Worse though; if the current rate of serious-harm accidents continues through the rest of this year, we will see a 50% increase in the number of accidents.

That is not an industry cleaning up its act. That is not an industry showing a change in attitude toward worker safety. That is not an industry meeting acceptable levels of business management and respect for human resources.

This is where WorkSafe and the forestry industry must face off. If WorkSafe is to bring us back to acceptable standards of forestry management, it won’t be without a serious confrontation with this industry – there’s going to be costs and some are not going to like that.

Until then, these men remain subject to an unsafe and unacceptable working environment and subject to an unjustifiable and unrealistic work life.