Pike report offers lessons for other industries

CATHERINE HARRIS
Last updated 13:59 23/11/2012

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High-risk industries such as forestry and agriculture will come under greater scrutiny to get their houses in order following Pike River, a forest industry player warns.

Peter Clark of forestry consultancy PF Olsen said the Royal Commission report into the mining disaster offered "free lessons" for other industries on health and safety.

Pike was New Zealand's 12th inquiry into mining disasters, and every generation seemed to need a wake-up call.

"Why are we not learning from past failings? In forestry we have quite a strong safety culture established with most contractors and workers. Accidents and near misses are being reported.

"But does management commit the time and energy to make the most of near-miss reports, particularly those that, if not for good fortune, could have resulted in death or serious injury?"

Clark said he was confident that in big forestry companies, staff felt able to speak up on safety concerns and it was then management's job "to ask and act".

But smaller operators and farm foresters did not always have those resources.

Pike River also served as a warning that pressures of production could never overtake the need to assess safety, he said.

This week Pike River's directors said health and safety issues were considered operational matters and were not passed on to the board.

But Clark said an "alert board" would have been familiar with the state of its safety systems.

"It would have regularly commissioned independent audit and advice. It would have held management strictly and continuously to account."

He expected the Labour Department, which had also failed Pike River, would get tougher on leadership or safety system failures.

"The forest industry is classified as a high ACC claim industry. We can expect increased focus from the regulator.

"If we needed a reason to take safety leadership and systems improvement seriously, outside of the clear evidence that safe workplaces are also more productive and profitable, then we now have it."

David Rhodes, chief executive of the Forest Owners Association, said work was already underway with MBIE to improve forestry's health and safety record.

But Pike River-like events were a "timely reminder".

"It's something where you think, is there anything more we could we could do?

"But we actually do feel quite confident and good about the things that we are trying to put in place and bring about a whole cultural change across the industry."

Federated Farmers health and safety spokeswoman Jeanette Maxwell said she was pleased to find a lot of issues in the Pike River report reflected the federation's own stance.

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But another, less-discussed issue of health and safety was mental health, which was a big issue on farms.

"Often behind a lot of accidents there are other issues - fatigue, stress, not eating properly, sleeping properly, the bank's breathing down my neck.

"And while accidents are preventable, mental health and wellbeing factors are often behind them."

A government-appointed taskforce is currently reviewing the country's workplace health and safety systems and its 20-year-old legislation.

Headed by Rob Jager of Shell NZ, the taskforce is expected to make its recommendations before Christmas.

- BusinessDay

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