Why is forestry so deadly?

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013
Jason Rawiri
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

DANGER ZONE: Jason Rawiri reckons he has one more year left in him.

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With a thunderous tearing sound, two radiata pine tumble. A minute or two later, a dusty Jason Rawiri emerges from the stand, having cut the last of his 280 trees for the day.

"It's hard going," he admits. "But the work is good and it keeps you going."

Rawiri, 33, was up at 3am in his Dargaville home. He drove two hours to work as a "faller" in the Weiti Forest, north of Auckland, where most of the trees are due to be replaced by subdivisions, not saplings. It's 3.45pm and he's preparing for the return trip home. "I might stick this out for one more year," he reckons.

This is a tough industry where the work is hard and poorly paid and the safety record concerning: there have been eight deaths and 90 serious injuries in forestry this year, the most recent just last Monday when a man was trapped by a falling tree in Kaihu, Northland. The forestry worker's injury rate in New Zealand is twice that of Australia and six times the UK. But contrary to what you might think, Rawiri's job, cutting down trees with a chainsaw, isn't the most dangerous job in the forest.

That job, "breaking out", belongs to Henry Perston, working about a kilometre away at the foot of a gully, surrounded by fallen trees. Perston's job is the exhausting labour of hooking logs to a reverse flying fox setup, which drags them out of the gully and up to his colleague on the hilltop. Perston has just completed a "line shift" - moving the anchor points of the heavy steel cables - which involves cutting notches into tree stumps and moving and hooking on 35kg "blocks" (one worker was killed in 2010 when such an anchor point failed). He's been doing this job for seven years, and likes "everything" about it.

"Once you get used to it, your body feels relaxed," he says. Perston is experienced and confident, but the "chute" in which he works is a dangerous area, says Roger Leaming, northern region manager for logging company HarvestPro.

The risks include trees suddenly swinging around as they are hauled out, debris flying or the stump ripping out and the block moving. "There's a lot of dynamic force," cautions Leaming, "so you always stay out of the ‘bite' of the rope." Later, he adds: "This is an industry where we don't want risk takers."

Each day, Perston must complete a risk management plan, work out a safe zone 35 metres away for when the logs begin to move, and is equipped with a hooter-type system and a radio to communicate with the hauler operator atop the hill. Men who do breaking-out could eventually be replaced by a machine costing $1.2m - but such outlays are difficult for contractors in an uncertain industry with thin profit margins. However, HarvestPro did last week begin rolling out GPS units so the hauler driver can check if he really is 35m clear before starting.

Mechanisation is more apparent with Rawiri's ground crew - a sign of the times. They are, says boss Jason McIndoe, one of the most productive in the north. Thanks to flat terrain, they can work twice as fast as hauler crews, but there are just eight of them - McIndoe suspects it will soon become law that felling trees on flat ground be done entirely by machine.

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Clearly tired after an eight-hour shift of shovel logging, where diggers pass logs along a chain to a machine which strips, grades and cuts logs to size, McIndoe is nailing a Tupperware tub of tuna as we talk. He's been in forestry since he left school two decades ago and has owned his own company (which sub-contracts to HarvestPro) for four years.

It's hard to tell if he's joking when he says he doesn't like his job: "I just got into it; I would love to change my profession."

He says his crews are safe on the job: "Have you seen our paperwork? No other industry in New Zealand does the paperwork we do. I saw the guy [a forestry industry representative] on TV saying basically ‘bring on the inquiry, we want one' . I was like, ‘Why say that?', but he was saying we've nothing to hide. So yes, bring it on.

"What I believe is letting down the big crews, the corporate crews like us in the main forests, are these woodlot guys on farmblocks. Because the market is so good, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a digger and a bucket that used to dig trenches is putting a grapple on and felling trees. The majority of guys getting killed are these guys. They are the idiots that are tainting it."

McIndoe says he's doing all right, but times are hard for small contractors: "I know guys, within the last week, who have said ‘get stuffed' to the forestry owners, parked up their gear because the rates are not there."

Back at head office, they agree. With 140 forestry staff and 50 sub-contractors, HarvestPro are one of the bigger players in a very fragmented industry; Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly estimates there are over 300 logging companies, despite there being just nine major forest owners.

All the industry's issues come back to the price owners are willing to pay per tonne, which Forestry Owners Association representative Sheldon Drummond said last week could be as low as $15.

"It's all based on whoever is willing to offer the lowest price," says HarvestPro chairman Andrew Chalmers. "Do they have all the necessary health and safety situations and compliance? If one operator will do it for $20 a tonne, if you want the work, you have to do it for the same price and health and safety is just assumed. What needs to happen in the industry is an extremely high level of regulation and continuous compliance . . . at the moment, anyone can become a forestry operator. The framework is lacking. You should have to go through a rigid process in order to be licensed."

HarvestPro managing director Zane Cleaver says that low log price has several other effects: there's a struggle to find skilled labour, because good workers are attracted by higher mining wages in Australia and they cannot afford to compete. There's also a lack of training, because where once major New Zealand-owned forestry companies would fund training programmes, companies owned by US pension funds don't feel the same sense of corporate responsibility - and the logging contractors don't have enough room in their margins to slow production and teach novices.

And less money means working harder.

"Rates have been squeezed and the contractor is having to work longer hours and more days in the week to try and make enough return to pay the bills," Cleaver says. "When guys are fatigued, they take shortcuts or make wrong decisions and get hurt, irrespective of how robust your health and safety management system is."

Kelly offers the example of one recent death, that of Tokoroa man Charles Finlay. He got home at 6pm one night, rose at 3am, began work at 4am and was dead at 5.30am. The CTU is representing the family of Finlay and four other dead forestry workers at a coronial inquiry next March.

Finlay, despite 27 years' experience, was earning $16 an hour when he died. And yet, says Kelly, forestry owners have lately boasted of record profits. On a website run by the CTU, one forestry worker posted on Thursday that he was earning the same now as when he began in the industry 18 years ago. Across the industry, wages seem to start at around $16 an hour and top out at $28.

Kelly doesn't blame the logging contractors, who, she says, often toil alongside their men, are unable to invest in machines and have little job security - she says it is not unusual for them to win a tender on a Friday to start work on Monday, keeping them hungry and prices low.

Forestry owners, she says, "have got to be made to care - if you want trees cut, you've got to meet labour standards, as you do in any other country. The incentive here is to do this as cheap and fast and dangerously as possible. The situation could improve tomorrow if the government regulated it."

In Australia, she notes, there is an agreed industry wage award. She wants re-regulation, better pay, and a formal industry review, not just the voluntary one planned for next year.

There's no doubting the HarvestPro staff genuinely want their workers to stay safe. Cleaver says he's only seen one death of a staff member, some four years ago, and the company was cleared of any blame. "We are very focused on health and safety because we don't want to participate in the statistics," he says with emotion. "We don't want to go to any funerals."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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