Widow of killed forestry worker still searching for answers

Michael Steven Langford died in a forestry accident in 2013 but his partner Kim Moore is still searching for answers as ...
Kim Moore

Michael Steven Langford died in a forestry accident in 2013 but his partner Kim Moore is still searching for answers as to why.

When Michael Langford became the second to last victim of a horror year for the forestry industry his partner hoped inquiries would reveal the truth about what happened to him and help save future lives. Instead she became frustrated with a murky process that left more questions than answers. Charles Anderson investigates.

Kim Moore knew as soon as she saw the policeman walking up the stairs of her Tapawera home. Next to the officer was a victim support worker.

The last time she had been exposed to the police in such a way was three years earlier. Her partner had been hit by falling logs and spent several days in an induced coma in the intensive care unit of Nelson Hospital. But that call came over the phone. This time the police had come in person.

A forestry block in the top of the South Island.
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A forestry block in the top of the South Island.

Moore was seven months pregnant with their second child, known then only as "Baby Langford," and had just woken up from a nap with their eldest Damien who was two. Minutes after the police arrived a news bulletin came over the radio. A 28-year-old man had been killed in a forestry accident, the report said.

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It occurred on Foxhill Cemetery Road on the outskirts of Nelson. The victim was not named but there was no one else it could be. It was Michael Steven Langford - partner, father and logging contractor. It was November 29, 2013 but Langford would not be the last person to die in a forestry accident that year. He was number nine of ten.

Moore has moved on from that house in Tapawera. There were too many memories there. It took her a long time to get her head around that Langford had put on his boots one day to go to work and did not come back. For the past two and a half years Moore has been waiting for an answer as to why.

She knows that he had been stressed and tired in the days leading up to his death. She knows he had felt pressure to complete the logging of a block of land in Foxhill. But she also knows he was a meticulous worker that cared deeply about safety. All his employees said the same. But as the process evolved she found that an investigation by WorkSafe, the Government organisation charged with regulating workplace safety, inadequate.

Langford died in November. WorkSafe had interviewed everyone by the following February but it was not until that November that Moore saw a report and only after, she says, that the coroner had asked for it. When the report arrived she found there were errors. It got details wrong and insinuated that Langford was not experienced in the industry - despite Moore handing over all relevant information to the agency. An accompanying coroner's report also cited his age as being 46.

"It's like they wanted an outcome out of this before they even looked into it," Moore says.

WorkSafe says the timeframe was standard when dealing with a coronial inquiry, however, if Moore had not asked for a public inquest the coroner would have simply said the cause of Langford's death was "asphyxia" caused by a "crush between fallen trees".

But Moore felt there was more to the story. As time went on she discovered out that the WorkSafe investigator who was in charge of the case left suddenly during his inquiries and resigned from the organisation. He had earlier suggested to Moore that Langford's death would probably "go the distance" and prosecution of the lot manager that hired Langford to log the Foxhill block would likely take place. Stuff has learned that his resignation was in part  due to the way the Langford case was being handled.

WorkSafe chief inspector for response and investigations Keith Stewart says it was unable to substantiate whether the pressure on Langford existed or had any bearing on his death.

"There was no evidence to support that any possible failure by any party was directly related to the circumstances of Mr Langford's death."

Moore says she has always been able to accept that Langford made a mistake.

"My concern has always only been that he felt under pressure and this is something that happens in the forestry sector too often. It's deemed as normal."

You won't find too many photographs of Langford in their new home. Damien was hit hard by his father's death and he did not need it in his face all the time, Moore says. Instead those memories are kept in a wooden chest that sits in the living room. There are some of his clothes and a photo album. Langford's chainsaws are still in the garage in case one day the kids want them.

"I think I still struggle to believe it happened," Moore says. "That's why we need to sort this out - for the kids. Because what's the alternative? Leave it?"

A 'HIDDEN' INDUSTRY

It was close to 1pm when Katy Dick noticed that her boss had not been heard of for some time and went looking for him. Langford, the director of Langford Contracting, had been working a "skidder". It is a piece of machinery that moves felled trees. Logs are chained up to it and then pulled onto a site to be loaded for removal. Once attached, the trees are extracted by dragging them behind the skidder on a formed site to a "skid site" for processing into logs. Then they are stacked and loaded onto log trucks for transportation.

A WorkSafe report says that while it was not known exactly what happened evidence suggested Langford was attaching the chains to a tree when he positioned himself between this tree and another one closer to the skidder. The skidder then moved forward, releasing one of the trees and catching him between them. It is believed that Langford did not apply the handbrake.

At first all Dick saw was a hi-vis vest. Then she saw his head. It was slumped over. His face was blue. As she moved closer she saw that Langford had been crushed between two logs. She felt his pulse. There was none. She called for another worker Jason Knight to come and help. He chainsawed through one of the logs to free Langford. Then he began CPR. But Langford could not be revived. The WorkSafe report says that the injuries were consistent with severe crushing of the chest area.

For a few weeks before the accident Langford had been talking about other jobs that the lot manager Total Harvest Solutions (THS) had lined up for his crew. THS had contracted Langford's company to do the Foxhill lot after it had been engaged by the lot's owner to log it. Langford Contracting had not been in business long and was looking to get a small foothold in a competitive market. Langford and his company needed work.

At an inquest into Langford's death last month several employees said that their boss had talked about these jobs and asked about how quickly they thought the Foxhill lot could be completed. Moore said at the inquest that it was because of these future THS jobs that her partner was stressed.

"If you do not keep them happy they give [the job] to someone else."

But Langford also did not have an appropriate certificate to be operating a skidder. While workers were permitted to operate them without such a certificate sources in the industry say that it is up to the principal to make sure everyone working on site is up to standard.

Moore said she accepted that her husband probably made a mistake on that day but that mistake was caused working too hard and being tired.

She said "low level bushmen" like her husband were made to work above and beyond.

"It is not a can do attitude it is a must do or else...we have lost a husband, and a father and a hard working, decent man because this industry works people too hard."

THS director Paul Jensen denied there were any jobs promised and that there was any pressure on Langford to complete the work. Another director Nigel Kelly said he had nothing to do with dealings with contractors.

Moore says the industry works on a "handshake" so records of any further jobs for THS are absent. Jensen said at the inquest that they simply did not exist.

"All the stuff that is hidden behind closed doors," Moore says.

FORESTRY'S GRIM TOLL

Since 2008, there have been 28 fatalities in the forestry industry, and nearly 900 accidents causing serious harm. However, until the 2013-2014 year there had only been 20 prosecutions conducted by WorkSafe. Then, in that 2013-2014 year WorkSafe prosecuted 11 companies for forestry deaths.

A review commissioned after the 10 forestry deaths in 2013 revealed several factors that contributed to the industry's safety issues.

There were multiple layers of ownership and contractual relationships which resulted in a lack of coordinated leadership on safety. There was poor communication between government and industry and across the different levels of the industry's supply chain. And at the worker level, there was little or no communication between crews or across the supply chain.

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"The result is that the sector does not speak with one voice and some within the industry have no voice."

The review also noted the economic tensions that resulted in a dangerous "blame culture and a weak safety culture".

"There are no excuses for doing nothing."

But critics say that this, in a way, is what WorkSafe has done. This month the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) won a private prosecution against a Tokoroa forestry company over the death of a worker, after the government safety regulator declined to prosecute. Then, this week, the CTU won another private prosecution against forestry company for another 2013 death.

WorkSafe completes about 750 workplace health and safety investigations of varying complexity each year and says it is appropriately staffed to meet this workload. However,the Health and Safety Reform Bill currently before Parliament still proposes to extend the six month deadline for charging companies to one year.

CTU president Helen Kelly said it needed to take this action highlight the inadequacy by the Government to step up on health and safety and carry out its role as legislator and regulator.

"The CTU has shown how leadership is important in the health and safety space to really make a difference with the accident rate in Forestry now dramatically reduced.  We now need the Government to take the same sort of leadership." 

Forestry sources say investigators are often over burdened and having to complete on cases with no witnesses within six months. 

Moore says it is concerning that the investigator who started the case and then resigned has not been called by the coroner. Indeed, no one from WorkSafe was called to the inquest.

Moore's lawyer Gerard Dewar the case of Langford was as much about conditions in the industry was it was about the death of one man.

"It's always boom and bust. It's always no work or complete mad rush in this industry. The dollar goes down the log prices goes up and suddenly everyone needs to get the logs to the wharf."

In 2013, it was a boom year.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

Kim Moore pulls out that photo album from the wooden chest in her lounge. There are photographs of Langford hunting, some of him at Damien's first birthday. There are some of Langford at work in the forests around Nelson. There is also one taken only a week before his death.

Documentation of forestry deaths released under Official Information Act make for grim reading. Victims are often struck by falling trees, or flying debris, or crushed between vehicles, or tree spars. One even died after having a "foreign body" fly into his throat. He died a few days later due to infection.

Then there is Langford. Here the victim was crushed between two trees while pulling wood with a skidder.

"The victim had been working alone," the report says.

That, says Moore, does not got far enough.

The inquest is not closed. Langford's cell phone has also been sent for forensic examination. Moore hopes that too may turn up some evidence. Then finally she might find the answer she is looking for.

 - Stuff

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