Haunted by dead forestry worker's face

MATT BOWEN
Last updated 05:00 17/05/2014
Finlay family
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ
FAMILY MAN LOST: Charles Finlay’s wife Maryanne Butler-Finlay with Shelby Finlay, 9, left, Charles Junior, Kyla Macfarlane (partner of Charles Junior), and Sharneica Finlay, 9.

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Forest veteran Charles Finlay was present for the official opening of the coronial inquiry into his death.

He was sitting at the back of the Rotorua District Court room in the public gallery unseen and unnoticed. Almost every seat beside him was taken on Monday morning as the inquiry into eight forestry deaths was opened for Coroner Dr Wallace Bain to scrutinise.

Finlay was a silent witness at ground level among scarred family members, his ashes sealed inside a heavy duty and waterproof briefcase resting at the feet of his widow, Maryanne and son Charles Jr.

The Tokoroa family was there to witness the public scrutiny they would soon see when Finlay's case goes before Bain. But it will be a while.

The Council of Trade Unions is now prosecuting Finlay's employer and once that case is over, the coronial analyses will begin.

Five other forestry deaths - Mahanga, McMurturie, Pairama, Epapara, Beamsley - are following similar paths and Bain adjourned them immediately once court opened at 11am.

It left Robert Thompson, who was struck in the back of the head with a hook while cutting firewood near Thames, and Reece Joseph Reid, 23, of Whanganui.

A tree crushed Reid in spring of 2012, before the 10 deaths of 2013 ratcheted up scrutiny on forestry health and safety. Still, he was one of 31 bushmen to die in the six years to August last year making it the most dangerous job in the land.

The story that unfolded around one of those numbers, Reid's, exposed how a small "cowboy" logging gang, propped up with poorly trained staff, could operate under the nose of authorities, win contracts, cut corners and spread workers thin in order to reach their tonnage targets.

Reid's supervisor, Michael Thomas, was first on the stand. He earned his forestry ticket in 1993 and has done almost everything - felling, breaking out, and machinery work.

The softly spoken man's diction suggested hands-on tasks were his forte. Taupo-based Great Lake Harvesting employed him to man a hauler, a massive machine that drags logs off the field.

On November 27, 2012, Thomas missed the 6.45am "toolbox" safety meeting and was "shovelling" logs to the skid site to be trucked away.

Reid started tree felling on November 8 and had just a few days experience felling from 250-300 trees. He had no formal training whatsoever, yet had practical experience wielding a chainsaw.

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Reid asked specifically for Thomas' supervision as he learnt the dangerous craft. At first it was one-on-one, close, direction. But at some point, Thomas couldn't say when, he decided Reid was skilled enough to observe him from a short distance.

Best practice requires "direct and constant one-on-one supervision" until they can work safely and are not likely to harm themselves or others.

New or inexperienced operators need extra attention as most serious injuries occur in the first six months.

From his machine, Thomas saw Reid remove a layer of clothing and watched the first tree fall successfully shortly before 7am in the forest block at Pongaroa, south of Dannevirke.

It was against safety protocol, he said, so Thomas started clearing a path towards him. He didn't try the radio, get out to signal or walk the 100m to stop Reid.

It was a matter of minutes before the second tree was cut but it remained hung up. Cuts on a third tree show Reid continued to work when the second tree fell and crushed him.

The WorkSafe inspector asked Thomas how Reid knew to wait for him and he replied: "It's what we normally do every morning. We discuss our plan of attack because on my supervision he needed to know what to do but on that morning he jumped the gun, he was keen . . . I was too far away to stop him from doing it. It was just a very unfortunate event."

Thomas was brought to tears as he recalled sprinting and stumbling over debris to reach Reid after the second tree toppled. He said: "I wish he had never started that morning and waited for me."

Reid's employer, GLH owner and life-long bushman, Murray Clunie took the stand next.

He was tall, well above six foot, and strongly built. His face seemed stern. His shiny, bald skull, framed by short grey sides, gleamed as he leaned down to the microphone.

Clunie comes from a forestry family and has been working the forest fulltime since he was 15. He drove a bulldozer before driving a car.

Counsel assisting the Coroner, Fletcher Pilditch, asked how he secured contracts.

They're advertised and he shows interest. Clunie then waits for a call back and the game is highly competitive. He then visits the sites, does his sums and figures out the kind of tonnage he can pull out per day. When the contract is secured, his aim is always to hit that mark.

His health and safety manual was a mishmash of styles and lettering tacked together from former employers, his father's company and the internet.

Clunie said he expected Reid to be closely supervised, close enough to tap him on the shoulder with a stick. He said that was his expectation on the 27th.

Like other days, Reid was picked up at 4am in Whanganui and travelled the 2-2.5 hours to work in a van, stopping for food along the way. He was a disqualified driver and often took the wheel. His working day ran from 7am to 3.30pm with 30 minutes for lunch, before driving home and arriving about 6pm. The work was demanding, physically and mentally.

Pilditch asked if that timetable was consistent with the crew being alert and focused and being able to manage the hazards of the forest. Clunie replied: "Yep, I've done it all my life."

"[The drive] does add to your day but I'd say there isn't a forestry crew out there who hasn't travelled those distances every day.

"It's not acceptable but it's what happens in the industry."

Clunie said Reid was told during the toolbox meeting that Thomas was delayed and that he should gather his tools and go to the cutting face and wait for his supervisor to turn up.

In an ideal world Clunie said Thomas would have been present at the meeting but when you're faced with producing a certain tonnage per day it's not always practical, he said.

Is it fair to call that production pressure? Pilditch asked.

"Yes."

"In other words, Thomas had to complete his shovelling job to ensure there was wood available to be taken from the site by the trucks as they came in?"

"Yep."

Clunie said Reid broke the rules when he started felling.

When criticism from a previous GLH employer, Ernslaw One Ltd, was read to the court, Clunie said the comments were the result of a relationship turned sour.

He said: "Nobody's perfect but my technical abilities, I'd rate myself right up there . . . I've passed numerous health and safety audits . . . your workers are your biggest asset."

Clunie, who forced back tears on the stand, did everything he could for Reid after the accident. He went to his side and tried to prise the log off his body.

During the lunch break, Clunie said he still sees Reid's face every day.

Lynda West was the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment inspector who analysed Clunie's company and the circumstances of Reid's death.

She took the stand on day two a few doors down in Bain's court.

Clunie had already admitted that more could have been done to keep Reid safe and the company was prosecuted and fined for it in 2013.

But West, now under the WorkSafe banner, peeled back the layers further.

Her summary of evidence, read aloud to the court, said three of the crew had formal training, including Clunie and Thomas. The other four had minimal formal forestry training.

GLH said they do a hazard ID for each site but at Pongaroa it was done two days after work started.

"Murray Clunie stated Gary Clunie was the health and safety representative yet all other employees, including Gary, stated that they believe Murray was the health and safety representative," West said.

West also agreed with Ernslaw One Ltd's criticism from GLH's two years spent logging at Waimarino Forest.

"His words to me were we don't want cowboy operators such as Murray working in the industry again."

Ernslaw One's allegations included that Clunie was forced to hire inexperienced workers and production suffered as a result; that there was lack of understanding, poor technical ability and a lack of health and safety leadership; as well as an inability to create a culture around health and safety issues.

"Clunie seemed to struggle with the comprehension of exactly what his roles was as an employer," West said.

"Reece's partner said Reid had spoken to her and said Murray provided their personal protector equipment but staff had to pay it back out of their wages."

Reid's partner also said he'd worked for two weeks without safety shoes before they were provided.

"I don't think [Clunie] was flippant - I just believe he didn't have a good understanding of health and safety requirements."

In West's opinion, Reid was told to start felling unsupervised on the day of his death. Her notes from that day say as much and Clunie told her Reid had "a healthy respect for the job" and "had never done anything he shouldn't have while on the job".

Following Pilditch's questioning, Bain said to West: "You've listed here to the court, a lack of supervision felling trees; lack of adequate training; lack of programme; lack of pointing out hazards of hung up trees; lack of proper working hours; lack of proper clothes; you've identified the early start and fatigue hazard."

Bain had his eyes on the Ministry now. They didn't know the crew was logging at Pongaroa because they had not been informed by either GLH or the harvest manager Northern Forest Products Ltd about the "particularly hazardous work" which they were required to do 24 hours before work started.

Both companies were informed after Reid's death and NFP made the notification on November 29.

Bain said: "You've said Ernslaw One described this operator as a cowboy - how is it that an employer flagrantly breaching a raft of health and safety requirements can be allowed to continue operating and no-one seems to know?"

West blamed the companies' non-notification and said Reid's death was the only reason they found out.

"But you do know they're in the industry working in forestry, yes?

"Why couldn't you have a system whereby you went after them and made sure it was happening or close them down until it does happen? It seems to me to be a relatively foolproof system to try and stop these people who are operating and committing flagrant breaches."

Bain said it seemed clear Reid had been felling trees unsupervised on more than one occasion and management knew about it. "Clunie indicated he would have three months close training when he started. In other words, two men cutting down one tree and not one. And is it a reasonable conclusion to say that may be part of the problem?"

"Yes."

"But you get into the economics of doing it, is that a factor?"

"I believe it was a factor that [Clunie] didn't have enough qualified operators in his crew and to get the tonnage out that he needed to get out per day he needed to cut corners."

"He needed to cut corners," Bain said, thoughtfully.

- Waikato Times

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