Editorial: NZ work-safety culture flawed

Last updated 05:00 04/12/2013

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OPINION: Pike River showed it; the unacceptable rate of death and injury in the nation's forests confirms it. Light-handed regulation does not provide adequate protection for people who work in dangerous industries.

Twenty-nine people were killed by the methane gas explosion in the Pike River mine in 2010. The cause of the explosion has still to be established but, in its aftermath, it has been revealed that mine management, staff and contractors at what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art operation were all ignoring basic security precautions in pursuit of increased production. To make matters worse, the then-Labour Department which was charged with ensuring safety guidelines were adhered to had only two inspectors to oversee about 1000 mines, quarries and tunnels nationwide.

The story in the nation's commercial forests is depressingly similar. In the past five years, 30 forestry workers have been killed on the job. Hundreds more have been seriously injured.

The causes of the deaths and injuries vary, but common to many has been limited training, pressure to meet deadlines, unsafe work practices and inadequate supervision.

In response to the latest deaths last week, one of New Zealand's largest forest owners, Hancock Forest Management, urged contractors to take a leaf out of the All Blacks' book and take a "day by day" approach to ensuring worker safety just as the All Blacks took a "game by game" approach to achieving the perfect season.

It was a wholly inadequate response to the deaths of two men, neither of whom, it should be noted, were working in the company's forests.

It is not a change in attitudes that is required but a change in practices. The sorry tale of death and injury will continue till forest owners and contractors invest more in training, supervision and equipment and pay slightly less heed to the bottom line.

New Zealand is a First World country. It should not tolerate Third World work conditions. But that is the point it has arrived at thanks to the fragmentation of the industry and the abdication by successive governments of their responsibility for ensuring worker safety.

Responsibilities once assumed by companies that not only owned the forests but also harvested them and sold the finished product now fall between forest owners, contractors and workers.

The scale of the problem is illustrated by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment investigations.

In recent months it has inspected almost half the country's 330 logging contractors. The results are staggering. One-hundred-and-fifty site visits have resulted in 182 non-compliance notices being issued. Operations at 14 sites were so dangerous the inspectors immediately halted production.

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Plainly the industry cannot be relied on to keep its workers safe. The Government must assume the responsibility with a rigorous, ongoing inspection regime.

Too bad if it slows production. Forest owners and operators have had their chance. They blew it.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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