Opinions split on what's causing forestry deaths

Death toll is the 'responsibility of everyone'

HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 12/12/2013
fellingham forestry
BRUCE MERCER
SICK OF IT: Darryl Fellingham is speaking out about the high rate of deaths in the forestry industry.

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Darryl Fellingham has seen the worst of the forestry industry.

He started working in the rough Tokoroa hill country as a 19-year-old and, although he left fulltime forestry work in 2004, he's had his fair share of close calls.

He has severed his right calf muscle with a chainsaw, almost lost the toes on his left foot and had two former workmates killed in forestry accidents.

Part of that comes with working in a "hard industry", he said, but he's sick of hearing workers blamed for accidents - especially when culpability starts at the top.

The 43-year-old, who now works mostly as an arborist, believes the pressure put on contractors by forest managers and owners is leading to serious safety issues.

"It's a production-based operation. The more [timber] the contractor pulls the more he makes.

"But he has to pull a decent amount of wood to make a living."

And that pressure was being passed down to workers, he said.

In winters, Mr Fellingham said he would often be off at dawn, working on steep terrain in mud up to his knees. Sometimes it would be in rain or snow.

"It's the kind of industry that because ACC charges are so high, if a worker has an accident, it doesn't matter if the doctor says you should have two weeks off.

"Your boss wants you back at work because it's classed as a lost time accident, and levies go up."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is nearly halfway through an investigation into the safety performance of more than 330 logging contractors, and has already handed out 182 notices for non-compliance with the Approved Code of Practice for Forest Harvesting.

Nearly half the notices were issued because contractors did not have adequate health and safety plans, with 14 contractors - including two in Waikato - being closed down.

Earlier this month, MBIE's general manager of health and safety operations, Ona de Rooy, said the death toll was the "responsibility of everyone".

But she also said given the "magnitude" of non-compliance, investigators would increase their focus on forest owners and managers.

Sheldon Drummond, chairman of the New Zealand Forest Owners Association (FOA) health and safety committee, welcomed the Government's stance.

"I think it's good. It's promoting our safety culture programme and the things that we need to change. There is no room for inaccuracy in this business."

However, Mr Drummond said he struggled with that argument that contractors were being poorly paid by forest owners.

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He said the per tonne rate paid to contractors varied hugely, but among corporate forest owners and managers, it was adequate.

"The cheapest might be $15 or $16 per tonne . . . and the dearer wood might be over $50 per tonne. It depends on the terrain and tree size."

That typically translated to an hourly rate of $18 to $20 per hour for workers in the corporate forest sector, he said.

But that's not the feeling of Mr Fellingham.

He said unlike the dairy industry, where high milk prices mean larger pay outs for farmers, the forestry industry did not pass on windfalls from high market prices.

"As a worker the rate of pay is just so low, it's not worth getting out of bed for."

- Waikato Times

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