WorkSafe slams forestry industry over deaths

Last updated 14:13 14/08/2014

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Workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe has slammed the structure of the forestry industry as a key factor in the sector's high incidence of injury and death.

"Complex contracting relationships with little vertical or horizontal integration, along with short-term contracts, make safety no-one's responsibility," WorkSafe said.

The economic model created tension between profit and worker safety and put the greatest burden on workers rather than the owners of the asset, it said.

"Production targets combined with unexpected delays in harvesting compound health and safety risks," it said.

The government agency made the comments in a submission, made public today, to the Independent Forestry Safety Review that was set up after a horror run of deaths in the industry last year.

WorkSafe said it had identified five key problems in the industry "against a backdrop of disparate agendas and a lack of cohesive leadership".

Problems with the economic model were included in a category covering the supply chain, while the remaining four problems were under headings of undervaluing safety, competency deficits, poor safety culture and insufficient investment in forest harvesting infrastructure.

"The prevailing short-term harvesting contracts in forestry - particularly in the farm forest sub-sector - exacerbate slow technological advancement and reliance on manual labour," WorkSafe said.

"The scale of this problem is aggravated by the high number of small contracting businesses and the frequency of short-term contracts.

"Poor safety process and planting design that takes insufficient account of safety implications further contribute to overall poor safety practice."

WorkSafe said it observed a systemic financial and operational under-investment in safety.

"Exacerbated by the supply chain structure, there is evidence of avoidance of health and safety obligations throughout the industry," it said.

"The scale of this problem is aggravated by non-compliant operators undercutting those who do implement good systems."

The structure of the industry's supply chain transferred the risk and responsibility for safety performance to those parts of the system least able to afford it, WorkSafe said.

"The impact of a poor safety culture is particularly high in forestry, given the high reliance on individual judgment at the bushline, which can be impaired by other contributing factors, such as fatigue, hard physical working conditions and the impact of variable environmental factors," it said.

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WorkSafe said the forestry sector turned to it, as the regulator, too early and too regularly for solutions.

WorkSafe was prepared to play a catalytic leadership role, but that commitment was time-bound and it was not WorkSafe's continuing role to lead the sector.

"The regulator has a role to play, but loading us with too much of the responsibility will maintain a position where the sector is too dependent on being told what to do by the regulator rather than devising, implementing and sustaining its own improvements," WorkSafe chief executive Gordon MacDonald said.

Principals in the sector appeared to be meeting their legal obligations within the contracting chain, "yet men are dying on the hill".

From 501 workplace visits between August 2013 and June 2014, WorkSafe inspectors issued 698 notices where workers were at risk of serious harm because basic controls were not in place.

"Contractor leaders are too often not acknowledging the safety failures in their membership that we are uncovering," MacDonald said.

"Some crew bosses are walking past potentially fatal health and safety failures on a regular basis and not acting on them."

Ten people died in accidents related to forestry and logging last year, taking the total number of deaths since 2008 to 28.

There were 967 serious injuries in the same period.

The three-member panel aims to have a final report by mid-October.

- Stuff

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