Sports invention to save workers' lives

Last updated 05:00 16/02/2014
Former Kiwis league coach Graham Lowe
LOWE-DOWN: Former Kiwis league coach Graham Lowe is behind a hi-tech plan to prevent deaths in the forestry industry.

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Graham Lowe was looking at an old photo of himself in his glory rugby league days, sitting in the grandstand at Brookvale Oval coaching the Manly Sea Eagles. And he realised the photographer had caught him napping.

Lowe, a longtime sufferer of sleep apnoea, who was once told he got just eight minutes of real sleep a night, now blames the condition for his horrendous health history of strokes, heart attacks and brain aneurisms.

The champion coach says that's what motivated him to launch a pilot study that will use GPS units to try to cut forestry deaths, by sounding an alert when workers are tired.

Fatigue has been blamed as a major contributing factor for the industry's awful record - 10 forestry workers were killed in accidents last year, sparking a Worksafe New Zealand investigation into safety conditions. A coronial inquest into eight of the deaths is also scheduled for May.

With business partner Rachel Lehen, Lowe has formed a company, Lowie Fatigue Management. They have taken GPS monitoring vests used by professional athletes, and remodelled them for forestry workers.

The vests measure core temperature, heart rate, respiration, hydration, perspiration, whether workers are standing or sitting and their GPS position. Researchers would study that data to measure whether workers were dangerously tired.

Lehen said it's known that tired workers were more likely to make bad decisions and cut corners. She said industrial health and safety had in the past concentrated on safety measures and "grossly overlooked" individual health. "People should not be dying while in the forest."

Staff employed for HarvestPro, one of New Zealand's biggest logging sub-contractors, will begin wearing the vests within six weeks.

HarvestPro northern manager Roger Leaming said: "Just to have some objective measure of fatigue is priceless. At this point, I've got nothing, no means of judging how impaired someone is."

Leaming said one of his loader operators fell asleep at the wheel with his machine spinning in circles. He couldn't be woken even by workers throwing woodchips at the windows.

Workers who manually attach fallen logs to lines to be towed out are among those most at risk. Leaming says studies suggest their workrate was equivalent to running at least a half-marathon (21km) every day. HarvestPro chairman Andrew Chalmers said just like sports teams use substitutes, his crews could be rotated in the same way.

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The GPS technology has been used by sports teams, the military, firefighters and to monitor the health of the 29 Chilean mineworkers trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, but this adaptation is new.

"The forestry industry is the ideal target, because of the danger involved, the hard work they do and the pressure they are under," Lowe said.

"Football players are measured for all that stuff, and we believe forestry workers deserve the same."

It's eventually possible that all crews wearing the vests could be centrally monitored and told when they need to rest.

The study could also encompass equipping workers with wristbands to wear off duty to measure their circadian rhythms and base fitness, and "smartcaps" to be worn under safety helmets to measure brainwaves.

Lowe said ACC, Worksafe New Zealand and Council of Trade Unions were all aware of the study.

- Sunday Star Times

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