Forestry deaths unacceptable: MBIE

Last updated 16:59 05/12/2013

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The health and safety system has a "long way to go" and the number of forestry fatalities is unacceptable, the head of the Government's new business super-ministry says.

Labour has accused the Government of overlooking a forestry crisis, with nine workplace deaths in the sector this year.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) chief executive David Smol told the parliamentary commerce select committee today that the ministry had "no higher priority" than health and safety, but it was still below standard.

"We accept that we've got a long way to go before the system is operating as efficiently as it needs to," he said.

Resources had been added in a bid to meet the Government's aim to reduce the number of serious workplace accidents by 20 per cent by 2020.

There were about 125 safety inspectors across all industries, a number boosted by 40 recent recruits, with a target of increasing this to about 200, he said.

Ministry officials said inspectors had conducted 146 assessments in the forestry sector, issued 48 infringement notices and ordered 14 contractors to temporarily stop operating where workplaces were found to be unsafe.

"We focus our resources on the areas of highest risk," the ministry said.

"We're not saying for a moment that the rate of fatalities in the forestry industry is acceptable. We have been for more proactive in allocating resources than in the past."

However, only nine of the inspectors are in the forestry sector, far less than the number of officials that the ministry brought to the select committee, which Labour MP Shane Jones described as "several rugby teams".

Smol told reporters afterwards that he did not know whether that was enough.

"I don't know what the right number is. We've significantly increased the resource; we've significantly increased the productivity of our approach with that sector," he said.

The new regulatory framework being developed as part of the creation of the new standalone agency, WorkSafe New Zealand, "will provide a much better base for the activity of the health and safety regulator", he said.

Jones said the ministry was not dedicating adequate resource to the sector.

"MBIE appear to be an empire of paper shufflers," Jones said afterwards.

"It's a piffling number of people given the scale of their operations. Forest harvesting is going to grow exponentially over the next few years."

Jones said he was left with the impression from the meeting that the focus of the ministry was on forestry contractors and workers, rather than ensuring that forest managers and owners were taking responsibility to ensure those they hired were up to standard.

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He was meeting forest owners this afternoon to express his concerns.

"We have a suspicion they're washing their hands of the issue and they're hoping that we'll fade and go and do something else," he said.

- Fairfax Media

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