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Forestry safety – problem or solution?

John Stulen, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2015.

Forestry’s dreadful experience of 10 deaths during 2012/2013 abated during 2014, hopefully for some considerable time. With the unwelcome media attention it has been challenging for all those in the industry. Everyone has a right to be kept safe at work and to ensure their actions do not endanger the safety of their fellow workers.

For everyone working in forestry the media attacks over 2013 made for a defensive reaction such as ‘It’s not like that around here’. But are you really at risk? Do workmates put you at risk? Can you put your hand on your heart and say that you make safety a top priority whenever you begin a task where you or others could be in a position which needs careful consideration and planning before starting?

With the mainstream media firmly focused on the emotive side of the forest accident story, it was hard for forestry representatives to get media attention about the injury prevention work on growing a safety culture and a four-year focus on implementing tree felling and breaking-out certification. Leading forest companies and contractors have led the way in getting their workers certified to work in these high-risk positions.

Some crews in the bush have seen the media portrayal of the industry as a personal insult. The unions have tried to paint a picture of workers who are being overworked, underpaid and suffering from fatigue completely against their will. The reality, as many forestry people know, is quite different.

Is it a deeper problem?

Is the media spotlight just reflecting the surface of what is actually a deeper problem? Are there far more people working at risk because they think, ‘She’ll be right ... I’m tough enough to do this’. If you are not part of the industry practising safety first and communicating it well, it may be time to take a hard look at yourself and see if you are part of the problem. Are you letting people down by not stepping in when they do not take a safety first approach?

If you are not part of the solution by practising safety in every task, you may be part of the problem. Just keeping quiet when there has been a near-hit or near-miss is not acceptable. What if you could have prevented tomorrow’s accident by speaking out about today’s near-miss?

If a forestry crew does not hold daily or twice-daily tailgate meetings are they really working safely? Safety is not an optional extra. Look closely at yourself and those around you and if you are not part of the solution you may well be part of the problem.

Time to implement change

The year 2014 started differently from every other year as forestry workers, contractors and managers went back to work. We were all desperate to shake the label we felt we did not deserve – a national shame as a workplace where serious harm or death visited monthly for someone at the out in the forest. However, for most forestry workers, 2014 started just as every one of the previous eight years before had started in many corporate forests, with Safestart meetings. These sessions actively remind us that the summer holidays are over and safety must again be top priority.

Sadly, less than 20 days into 2014, Bill Bryant of Renwick died at work. Here was a man who led his own crew and company, had years of experience, yet he died felling trees. Sadly for Bill Bryant and his family and friends, he paid the ultimate price. His death marked the end of a year-long tragic period in forestry. The rest of 2014 was much-improved in forest safety as no-one else died in a forestry workplace. Serious harm incidents have reduced by 44 per cent. Nothing can really change that now because of the good which has come including −

  • The Independent Forest Safety Review, which has drawn a big response and workers in their hundreds had their say, in person and online, and the turnout to meetings was greater than most expected
  • The silent majority spoke up – a feeling of unity was expressed by many genuinely safe crews that they were part of most of the crews in our forests
  • Review panel members have seen and heard from far more workers, supervisors, crew owners and forest managers than they ever expected to turn up
  • WorkSafe NZ has lifted their regulatory game and consulted with crew leaders before making inspections in key areas of harm, and they have consulted regularly with industry.

Underpinning the mood for change are messages from an attentive government. Legal minds have been honed to clarity from the Pike River mine deaths and the disproportionately deadly CTV building collapse. Implementing the Health and Safety Reform Bill will ensure that those who are in business are legally culpable and responsible for how safety is applied in the workplace. The addition of section 18 of Forestry Operations – Approved Code of Practice, or ACOP, ensures workers are legally connected as employees are to their employer regardless of who owns or operates the forests where they work. Other new legislation makes clear the safety responsibilities that rest with persons carrying out a business or undertaking.

Worksafe NZ submission

The Independent Forest Safety Review received a lot of worker feedback and a submission from WorkSafe NZ. Here are three main points from their submission:

  • Complex contracting relationships, with little vertical or horizontal integration, along with short-term contracts, make safety no-one’s responsibility. The economic model causes difficulties between profit and worker safety, and puts the greatest burden on workers rather than the owners of the asset. Production targets combined with unexpected delays in harvesting compound health and safety risks.
  • Viewed as a whole, but with exceptions, safety is not high enough on this sector’s priority list. We observe a systemic financial and operational under-investment in safety. Exacerbated by the supply chain structure, there is evidence of avoidance of health and safety obligations throughout the industry. The scale of this problem is aggravated by non-compliant operators undercutting those who do implement good systems.
  • The prevailing short-term harvesting contracts in forestry, particularly in the farm forest sub-sector, exacerbate slow technological advancement and reliance on manual labour. The scale of this problem is aggravated by the high number of small contracting businesses and the frequency of short-term contracts. Poor safety process and planting design which takes insufficient account of safety implications further contributes to poor safety practice.

Therefore 2014 will be marked in the minds of everyone in forestry when we all took personal responsibility for our role to make positive safety change. Looking ahead, there are still challenges for managers to implement effective safety change for workers. This year will test our leaders’ abilities to provide it for everyone at the bush line.

Agenda for change to improve safety

The review made very clear that attitudes towards safety in forestry workplace must change significantly. WorkSafe’s submission to the review noted that the changes must be led by industry, and FICA backs these comments. Government and training agencies also have a related role to play. A recent visit I made to see the British Columbia Forest Safety Council processes in action has confirmed that a commitment of time by industry, and a matching commitment in project support from government via safety and training agencies, can be a recipe for success.

Critical to ensuring workplace safety reform are −

  • Agreement by industry leaders to be open and accept recommendations from operations, contractors and workers in technical safety groups
  • Commitment to making extensive resources available from ACC levies, industry time and travel and matched with WorkSafe resources for making changes to the Approved Code of Practice
  • Involvement by operations managers and contractors who care about leading changes and WorkSafe inspectors and technical staff.

It is also clear that the industry efforts in British Colombia did not happen on their own. The organisation has been in existence for a decade, but a dedicated change was the beginning of taking contractor certification systems from the office into the bush.

Reynold Hert, who runs BC Forest, is emphatic ‘Make sure your system in New Zealand is industry-owned and driven right from the start.’ He will be in this country soon explaining in more detail how they changed their industry attitudes and results. He is one of three international keynote speakers confirmed for the Forest Industry Safety Summit to be held on 3 and 4 March in Rotorua.

Contractor pre-qualification essential

One result of the review is for a mandatory accreditation system to pre-qualify forest contractors using a range of health and safety criteria. Development of this system will be focused more on the implementation of work in the forest rather than the traditional former certification efforts which tend to focus on paperwork in offices.

Ideally this should be applied to all forest contractors before they are allowed to work for any forest owners, managers or brokers who buy and sell logs commercially. Whatever system is put in place, it will be the uniform application of pre-qualification which will be essential for its success in reducing workplace accidents.

Intervention in farm forestry operations

There is now considerable focus and energy across the entire forest industry to solve the problems facing us. The review allowed for an unbiased view of safety in the forestry workplace. For 2015, designing and implementing solutions to ensure safer work practices beyond just tree-falling and breaking out will be an additional challenge for forestry.

Having been focused for the past four years on corporate forest operations, it is now time to extend the intervention into farm forestry operations. Getting to the right people and checking that the message is being received and acted on is now a top priority.

John Stulen is Executive Director of Forest Industry Contractors Association based in Rotorua.

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