Union head slams forestry-safety record

Forestry's safety code is under fire from a top union leader.
Forestry's safety code is under fire from a top union leader.

The country's top unionist is crying foul over a new forestry safety code of practice that aims to cut death and injury in the industry by 25 per cent by 2020, saying it has failed to take heed of the lessons learnt from the Pike River mine disaster.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment launched the standards last week only to be accused of providing "weak leadership" on health and safety by Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.

Kelly said the standards were developed without any worker participation by organisations in the forest industry that "already show they have no understanding of the seriousness of the ongoing health and safety issues in the sector".

Helen Kelly: 'I've heard appalling stories of fatigue''.
Helen Kelly: 'I've heard appalling stories of fatigue''.

Between 2002 and 2008, forestry and logging had the highest rate of serious harm notifications at 16.4 per 1000 fulltime equivalent (FTE) staff per year. This was almost six times the rate for all sectors at 2.9 per 1000.

Kelly said the standards have no provisions for employee participation - a key recommendation in the Pike River Report; weak provisions around vehicles (such as no requirement for seatbelts); and they shift risk to employees.

For example, she said, the standards state that workers can refuse unsafe work but require them to work it out with their employer first rather than establishing reciprocal obligations under which employers have an obligation to stop, listen and respond.

"We believe working conditions in the industry are a major contributor to the accident levels, including long hours and fatigue," she said.

"On this matter the standards put the onus on the workers to manage fatigue, requiring employers only to provide ‘regular rest breaks, a meal break, a daily or nightly sleep period and shared driver responsibilities'.

"How this can be seen as best practice is unbelievable."

Ona de Rooy, general manager - central division of the ministry, said the code is the result of three years' work and was completed prior to the release of the royal commission report into Pike River.

Work on the review of the code started in November 2009 and a first draft was produced in November 2010, which was sent out for consultation.

However, the final document was not created in isolation to external events, she said. "During the review and consultation process, issues were raised by the ministry's inspectorate, forest owners and contractors relating to prosecutions and coroners' findings as new information became available.

"The ministry is continuing to work through the recommendations of the Pike River Royal Commission and continuing to work with the Health and Safety Taskforce on their recommendations for change within the health and safety system."

Those considerations are broader and more strategic than the review of individual codes, she said.

"The ministry is confident that the new [code] will contribute to lowering the work toll in forestry, as it is one of the fundamental elements in a range of work across the sector focused on safety."

De Rooy said the development of the code included international discussions, in particular with British Columbia, Canada, which has a significant forestry industry.

The forestry sector has the highest rate of fatal work-related injuries in New Zealand. The rate of ACC claims for the forestry sector is almost six times the average rate for all sectors.

"I'm disappointed to hear Helen Kelly, for reasons of her own, hijacking a positive and useful development," Glen Mackie, senior policy analyst at the New Zealand Forest Owners Association, said.

Mackie said the industry has had a code for 15 years and it has resulted in a significant reduction in injuries and he was hoping the update would further reduce incidents of serious harm.

"It specifically addresses some of the high-risk activities in the industry, such as breaking out," he said.

Breaking out is the extraction of logs from a forest, often on difficult terrain.

Mackie said consultation on the code was undertaken on all levels with the Forest Industry Contractors Association and the companies themselves.

"Extensive efforts were made to get down to individual workers," he said.

"To say it will have no effect is disappointing," he said. "It shows a lack of understanding of the changes."

Mackie said the current level of injury is unacceptable, but international injury statistics which cast New Zealand's injury rate in a highly unfavourable light are flawed because they do not address the real level of logging activity undertaken by workers.

Those statistics show injury per 100,000 workers, but Mackie said a better comparison is injury per cubic metre of timber extracted.

That focuses in on the actual volume of logs being worked and extracted because that is the high-risk activity.

On that basis, New Zealand is actually ahead of Britain on safety because we extract more than three times the amount of timber.

Mackie said in 2006 there were around 380 serious harm injuries in the industry when around 18 million cubic metres of timber was extracted. He is hoping that in 2012, with 26 million cubic metres extracted, that will drop below 300 as measured by ACC.

"We are very proud of the code and are hopeful it will have a significant effect," he said.

Kelly said workers committees and trained health and safety reps were needed in the industry. She added that written employment agreements are rare and there is too much flexibility within the new standards, for example requiring seat belts to be worn only "where fitted".

She also took issue with a lack of maximum hours worked, saying fatigue is a major contributor to serious harm injuries.

"I've heard appalling stories of fatigue," she said.

Contracting out allows the forest owners to remove themselves from responsibility, she said. The status of such contract workers was an issue addressed in the Pike River report.

Kelly said there had been 13 deaths in the industry over three years, not counting logging trucks. Five deaths had occurred since last Christmas, she said.

Sunday Star Times