Forestry company to face charges

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 11:55 03/12/2013

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Charges are pending against at least one forestry company and more are likely as a result of the Government's health and safety investigations.

The Government is being forced to defend its work in the forestry sector against accusations it is not doing enough to curb the industry's appalling health and safety record, and it says a corporate manslaughter charge is now unlikely.

Nine people have died in forestry accidents this year, including two last week, and 90 have been seriously injured.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is halfway through inspections of the country's 330 cable logging operators. It has so far issued 182 infringement notices and shut 14 operations down.

Labour minister Simon Bridges said this morning charges are to be laid against at least one operator as a result of the inspections with more likely to follow.

"We are warning the industry they need to get their house in order. We're stepping up, we're resourcing this, doing the inspections, actually changing the law, we need them to take that seriously and also step up because if they don't there will be consequences."

He would not say if those prosecutions related to any of the deaths.

Under current legislation, company directors can face up to two years in prison but a law change under a bill expected to be introduced next year could see that upped to five in serious cases.

There would also be increased financial penalties as part of a system of tiered penalties.

Bridges pointed to the recent coroner's finding that over half of the forestry deaths occur during tree felling and clearing out and these were things that could be rectified if logging companies followed the correct standards.

What was "disturbing", was the inspectors had found these were not being followed in a significant number of cases which was why action had been taken.

Bridge said having more inspectors was part of the answer and that number would increase next year following the launch of WorkSafe New Zealand later this month.

"What I'm signalling very clearly to you is we are taking this very seriously. I actually think we are doing all of the things that we feasibly can do but now what's also required is for the industry itself and particularly the owners to take it as seriously as we are."

Bridges also said he did not think a corporate manslaughter charge was "workable" following comments by Prime Minister John Key yesterday that the charge was unlikely.

Justice Minister Judith Collins has been considering the introduction of a corporate manslaughter charge as recommended by the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety in its report released earlier this year.

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Key yesterday said it was off the table, saying he had not received any advice that convinced him it was necessary, and that it was not supported by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson as far as he was aware.

"I know he was looking at the issue but I don't think it's going to progress," Key said.

Instead, employers in the forests had to take more responsibility and the Government was putting more onus on them through MBIE.

A spokesman for Collins said yesterday she was still investigating the corporate manslaughter charge, and was awaiting advice on wider issues around corporate liability and how these might be addressed.

Labour leader David Cunliffe said the decision showed the Government was "soft on the top end of town and hard on the bottom".

"The Labour Party believes that it's time that we progress corporate manslaughter and we are very, very critical that they are taking that off the table."

The advice they had received was that it was a worthwhile addition to legislative measures and provided an additional incentive to ensure managers took more care of workers.

"When matters are life or death it's not sufficient for directors and boards simply to be able get away with a financial penalty which is often just insured away."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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