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Forest safety reviews and a proposed new health and safety Act

Julian Bateson, New Zealand Tree Grower May 2014

When I first took on the role as the health and safety representative for the NZFFA a number of years ago, safety was not an area of general interest. In fact hardly anyone seemed concerned about work safety in forestry. How the world has changed since the disaster at the Pike River mine and the high number of forestry deaths in 2013 stirred the government departments into action.

We now have two reviews involving forest safety, there is also a new health and safety Bill going through Parliament and in addition, there is a coroner’s review of most of the recent forestry deaths. Hopefully all this will bring about some useful improvements and reductions in forest accidents.

Reviews, reviews and reviews

The Independent Forestry Safety Review eventually started in March after many months of negotiation. The review was called for, and is funded by, the Forest Owners Association, the Forest Industry Contractors Association and the NZFFA. It is paid for almost entirely by these organisations to the tune of around $500,000. The exact amount is a bit vague at the moment, but it is a lot of money for a review which is to take around six months. Secretariat support costs supplied by WorkSafe NZ are additional to the figures above.

The review is supposed to be looking at everything in forestry safety and coming up with viable solutions. Already the questions from the review panel are coming thick and fast.

Code of Practice

Also up and running is another review, this time it is for part of the Approved Code of Practice for Safety and Health in Forest Operations. Some of you may remember that this code of practice was launched at the very end of 2012 and rolled out to corporate forestry in 2013. Copies of the code were also made available to the NZFFA attendees at the 2013 conference in Orewa, and to any other member who asked for one.

Why review this so soon? I am not exactly sure but I understand it was the Minister’s decision to show ‘something was being done’. A total of 11 organisations were involved in the steering committee for its production in 2012, but it did not include the NZFFA. WorkSafe NZ has now realised that our association must be involved, and we are. Ian Jackson and I were invited to attend the first detailed discussions in early April.

This meeting was an attempt to try to refine the definitions and responsibilities of principals in forestry contracts. Hopefully the revision, when finalised in August, will mean that the code of practice is more relevant and easier to manage for small-scale forest owners.

Proposed new law

The Bill currently being considered by Parliament is the Health and Safety Reform Bill. When it becomes law it will replace the current Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. There will be major changes as a result, including better and more effective enforcement. The Bill is expected to become law sometime in 2015.

One of the more relevant items in the Bill is reference to a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ which has been given a dreadful acronym, in this case PCBU. I will try to avoid using this acronym ever again, but you may see it used in reference to the Bill. The term ‘principal’ is more relevant and is used significantly elsewhere in contracts. A principal is the person conducting the business and will apply to many of you reading this.

What a principal is

If you contract a logging company to harvest your timber, you cannot contract out of your responsibilities for health and safety, you are a principal. There could even be two principals, yourself and one for the logging contractor. This is quite a problem to consider and something which will be discussed in the various reviews going on. The duties of a principal will be defined more precisely in the new law when it is finally passed by Parliament. Common sense would suggest that if you do things properly you will be fine. However, at the moment this is by no means clear.

The current situation is that you are expected to monitor all stages of the contract with your contractor and ensure that they are, among other things, carrying out all health and safety matters as the law prescribes. It can be tricky.

I know one member of the NZFFA who went to see how his contractor was progressing with a thinning operation. This contractor had followed all the relevant guidelines in the contract with regard to safety. However, due to sickness and other problems, there was only one man working when at least two are required. This thinning work should have been immediately stopped, with consequent delay and extra cost. Would you have stopped the work, or take a risk and hope there was no accident? With luck, the reviews and the new law will make such a decision a lot clearer and easier.

The best practice contract with ACC

Back to current activities. We have the long-running saga of the $50,000 contract which the NZFFA have with ACC to eventually roll out a programme of workshops and field days. These will be based on the yet-to-be produced best practice guidelines for productive and safe small-scale forestry. The project is to demonstrate efficient and effective work in small-scale forestry operations, with the consequent improvement in safety. WorkSafe NZ has agreed to participate in all these proposed field days and workshops.

The guidelines have been in production for almost two years, the contract which started the process was first discussed almost two years before that, four years in total. Regular readers will recollect all my failed promises about when we will see some action. I will make no more promises because the paid professionals involved keep letting us down.

I can let you know that in February I corrected all the errors which were in the text of the best practice guidelines, and sadly there were a lot. I then sent it back the same month for final approval. I eventually got that approval just before Easter. The aim is to have these guidelines printed and available for all NZFFA members and other small-scale forest owners during the current year. As mentioned above, this is not a promise as I have been let down too often in this project.

Tree felling guide

Those of you who are more observant will have noticed that in this issue of Tree Grower is an A5 booklet Safe Manual Tree Felling. It may be confusing because some of you may have thought it was the best practice guidelines mentioned earlier. If it is a surprise to you, it was also a surprise to me. I knew nothing about its production until it was published by WorkSafe NZ a few weeks ago.

Safe Manual Tree Felling is a best practice guide about felling trees safely. On the first page the it says it is aimed at principals and contractors involved in manual tree felling. If you are doing the work yourself, or managing someone else, it is for you. It is a very useful guide and well worth reading. WorkSafe NZ has paid for the production of this guide and want everyone involved in manually cutting down trees to have a copy and follow the guidelines. That is why you have been sent your own copy to read as appropriate.

Conference

Since I started writing this article in early April I attended the conference in Blenheim, along with around 200 other members of the NZFFA. It was gratifying to be approached by various people who wanted information and advice about safety in their forest operations. In previous years I would probably only have one person at the most asking for advice or other information.

Not always easy to be safe

The conference organisers produced an excellent conference and among other things made sure that safety was high on their list. However, one example of a problem which occurred highlights how difficult it is to make sure all the right processes are in place in any contract to ensure safety. A ‘principal’ in any contract can have a very tricky path to follow.

On the final day of the conference around 15 of us were in a minibus travelling down a fairly steep, wet and muddy forest road. It was travelling faster that was wise in the conditions and on one corner the driver locked his wheels and skidded to the edge of the road, very close to some trees and a steep drop.

He then immediately set off again at the same speed. As is my habit, I speak up when others do not. I said that we should be going slower, but it had no visible effect. I then shouted to the driver that we had 15 people for which he was responsible and he must slow down as it was dangerous. At that stage he did reduce speed to a sensible pace and we had no more problems. The driver did not acknowledge my comments or apologise in any way for his actions.

The driver was a professional who should have known better. The conference organisers had booked a responsible and professional company, but they have been let them down by this driver. It is an example of how things can go wrong however well you plan if the professional is not up to the required standard.

I was approached at the lunch stop after this incident separately by two of the passengers from the bus. Each had been very concerned at the speed the bus was travelling and both thought it should have slowed down a lot earlier before the incident. One of these passengers also said that they saw how close we were to hitting a tree as the bus skidded to a stop and that in their opinion, I would have been the one to take the brunt of any impact. Fortunately, at the time I was unaware of this last bit of information.

Good news for the future

Part of the steep slope harvesting field day took us to a demonstration of what I hope is the future for harvesting on steep slopes. The machine used what is called a falcon claw with a camera in the claw. As the photograph shows, the felled and fallen trees, some wind throw and some machine felled, are in a bit of a mess. Any person working on this slope would have a very risky job.

The machine is operated from the top with a watcher in radio contact well back from the action. The camera on the claw displays a picture on a screen in the cab allowing the winch operator to select and lift any tree chosen. This means there is no one on the slope attaching the log to the cable. It is the future for safe steep slope logging.

Quad bike reminder

I have not forgotten the continuing concern about the use of helmets on quad bikes, and in fact with the use of quad bikes in general. The good news is that the injury and death rate from quad bike accidents in 2013 was much lower than previous years. However, I have heard of more deaths on quad bikes in the work place this year, so no-one should ease up on safety. Quad bikes are still a danger to riders, whatever manufacturers may say.

I do not need to remind you that helmets must be worn by quad bike drivers – it is the law. Passengers should not be carried on a quad bike under any circumstances, unless the quad bike is specifically designed for passengers, and very few of them are. No one under the age of 16 is allowed to ride a quad bike. It also makes a lot of sense to install roll-over protection.

Julian Bateson is the health and safety representative for the NZFFA

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