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Independent forestry safety review - What does it mean for us?

Peter Berg, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2015.

At the launch of the review panel’s report on 31 October in Rotorua there were almost 400 people present, including representatives from all sectors of the forestry community. There were chief executive officers of our largest forestry companies, workers still in high-viz jackets and heavy boots, representatives from Worksafe New Zealand, Competenz the forest industry training organisation, Scion, the Ministry for Primary Industries, iwi, and all the significant forestry associations including the NZFFA.

It was an expression of support and commitment from across the forestry community to pick up the recommendations of the panel and implementing these as promptly as possible.This is no simple task.

The recommendations are wide ranging, covering matters such as fully understanding our respective roles and responsibilities for health and safety, ensuring that everyone is fully trained and capable of undertaking those roles, and that those involved in planning and performance of operations recognise the requirements of the site and provide for a safe workplace. Some particular matters highlighted by the panel included −

  • No coherent leadership for health and safety in the industry, with many forest owners appearing to abrogate responsibility for their operations to forestry contractors and the people involved on the ground
  • Incomplete standards and procedures to ensure workplaces and those involved are safe
  • Inadequate training and supervision of workers
  • Poor representation of workers in developing and determining safe practice.

Small-scale forests

A number of these matters relate to operations in smaller forests. This is partly because the forest owner has limited forestry knowledge and experience and often little time, as their forestry enterprise may be secondary to their principal business activity or employment. Our forestry operations tend to be periodic and for some small forest owners a once-in-a-lifetime event. After growing for almost 30 years small blocks may be harvested in a matter of weeks.

There is little opportunity to interact with the workers and a great deal of reliance may be placed on the ability of the contractor. Contractors working in smaller forests may also be constrained. They often do not have the continuity of work to permit the development of a skilled workforce and the conditions they encounter are likely to be variable and poorly prepared for operating, especially when the weather is inclement.

In its submission to the review panel the NZFFA acknowledged these difficulties and agreed it could possibly be contributing to the poor safety record being reported in the forestry sector.Among other things we sought help to provide better communication with our members and other small forest owners, to work with contractors to help solve their problems, and to provide better coordination of activities overall.Although the review panel were unsure about any over-representation of small-scale forest owners in forestry accident statistics, they otherwise picked up on these matters, although more in the context of the wider forestry industry.

Better leadership

A particular emphasis was given to leadership, or lack of, in relation to making a safe workplace. They proposed the immediate establishment of a Forestry Leadership Action Group to oversee the development of an action plan including small-scale farm forest representatives. The action plan is scheduled for completion in the early part of 2015 and is required to consider the systems and processes necessary to ensure the proper changes are made. Clearly in our case this will require consideration of the problems associated with dispersed forest ownership, better advice, information and contractor capability.

The panel also focused at some length on the rules which govern forestry operations. They proposed that while the Health and Safety Reform Bill will set the broad legislative framework for health and safety in New Zealand workplaces, the forestry sector needs to ensure that agreed forestry regulations are set which are consistent and mandatory. The industry presently has its Approved Code of Practice which is regarded as optional. The code is being reviewed and is a good source of information on how to safely undertake forestry operations, and it would be desirable to see all forest owners with a copy.

Certification scheme

This raises the matter of communication. Our industry colleagues are looking to the NZFFA to lead the process of contacting and communicating with small-scale forest owners throughout New Zealand. Significant progress has been made in terms of identifying the addresses of around 10,000 forest owners. While this process is continuing it will permit the direct supply of current state-of-the-art material on operations, duties and responsibilities. Branch-led field days demonstrating best practice could possibly also result in wider membership of the NZFFA.

It was emphasised by the panel that not all forest owners or contractors have problems. Many meet or exceed any legal requirements, but the level of performance is quite variable, and as recent legal cases have determined some major faults or errors are made.

The panel considered that at least part of this problem could be solved by an industry-led contractor certification scheme. The panel proposed that this might initially identify the contractors meeting existing health and safety and other operational performance requirements, but eventually extend to higher levels of performance and attainment of best practice standards.

For small-scale forest owners this would be a key development, as one of the problems many of us face is being able to identify competent operators when only periodically involved in forestry operations. At the Rotorua report launch I accordingly endorsed this recommendation as being of particular interest to small-scale forest owners.

Site assessment

The Worksafe site assessment, formerly bush inspections, is an area also considered to need some review. The Health and Safety Reform Bill will have some bearing on this as it reaches the statute stage. However it is becoming clear that risk, hazards and management will all be aspects covered in that process and the assessment will almost certainly have more effect on forest owners than has been the case.

At the launch Worksafe commented to me that it was not even confident it was aware of all forestry operations requiring inspections. Smaller forests were often less obvious and with periodic harvesting could escape notice. There is an obligation to report proposed harvesting operations before they commence and forest owners should ensure that this has been done.

Details in the new law

A number of the panel’s recommendations addressed matters which directly relate to training, protective clothing, emergency planning which primarily lie in the domain of the contractor or other operators. However it is still necessary to have some awareness of these matters, as in each case at least some of the responsibility sheets home to the ‘principal’, which includes the forest owner in most cases in the event of an incident.

At present the Health and Safety Reform Bill is continuing to be developed. This defines the notion of a principal and sets out the duties of a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’. As I see it, in most cases forest owners, irrespective of the scale of their operation, who are engaging contractors to harvest their forest or undertake other forest operations will be the ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ and have the relevant responsibilities and duties.

The Reform Bill has some way to go but it appears that these principles are now firmly established, and the detail will follow in regulations yet to be promulgated. Notably the draft already includes provision for notices to prohibit or amend workplace practices. The worst breaches can incur significant penalties, including fines of several hundred thousand dollars and periods of imprisonment for a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ and body corporates. The select committee considering the Bill is to report back by 30 March next year and it is expected it will pass into law later in 2015.

Supporting recommendations

The panel complimented the review sponsors, including the NZFFA, for undertaking this process. At the launch of the report in Rotorua and subsequently we acknowledged our support in principle for the recommendations. We are also committed to working alongside our industry colleagues to create a much safer forest industry, one where all our legal and moral obligations are met and in which all involved appreciate the opportunity to participate. As the panel note, this report is an agenda for change in the forestry sector – let us all be part of it.

Peter Berg is a member of the NZFFA Executive, was a General Manager at the NZ Forestry Corporation and was President of the NZ Forest Owners Association.

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