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Some good news and some bad news

Julian Bateson, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2015.

Most of you will probably be wondering what is happening now with forestry safety as the news has gone a bit quiet these days. The good news is that the injury rate is still staying a lot lower than it was, although the target is zero. The bad news is that there have been some forestry fatalities. One was killed when felling a tree, one from an apparent heart attack while working in the forest, one by carbon monoxide when working inside a container in a forest and two by a logging truck.

WorkSafe is apparently pleased with the progress in safety in forestry. Enforcement is continuing and the number of enforcement notices per visit has fallen even further from the average of 2.5 at the beginning of the process over a year ago to 0.2 per visit, or one every five visits. This means that when the safety inspectors look at the way the work is being carried out they are finding far fewer serious problems. In addition, the number of accidents causing harm is continuing to fall and is well ahead of any government targets.

Small-scale forestry operations are soon to become more of a target for WorkSafe enforcements and assessments. An example used was a group of 18 crews visited on small-scale forests and virtually none of them was aware of relevant best practice guidelines, for example. Crews on smaller woodlots are being regularly found with safety problems compared with harvesting crews from the larger companies.

Health concerns

In this issue I would like to start with the health part of health and safety. A subject which has not been talked about much in connection with forestry health, but has been with farming, is suicide. One of the most disturbing aspects of the rural community is the high rate of depression and suicide among farmers.

Information about farming suicide was kept a virtual secret until about five years ago when the Chief Coroner gave a presentation to a farm health and safety forum. He explained at the time that there was an average of about 20 farming suicides each year. The audience, of which I was one, listened in virtually stunned silence, staggered by the high number and the fact that this information had not been made public before. The session was followed by numerous questions about what could be done.

Current farming suicide figures

Now, four or five years later, I have just seen the most recent annual provisional suicide statistics released by the Chief Coroner, Deborah Marshall. For the whole of New Zealand a total of 564 people committed suicide last year, which is the highest number since records began eight years ago. The number for farmers shows a similar upward trend − 27 compared with the average of around 20 a year. What we do not see in these figures is the additional number of those who are severely depressed and suffer from health problems as a result.

My rough calculations suggest that farming suicides are about three times the rate of the general population, although I may be wrong on this. Whatever the rate, each one is a sad statistic. I was listening to a radio programme recently and a farmer was talking about this problem. As I recall, he said that of the six funerals of farming acquaintances which he had been to over the past year or two, only one was not a suicide.

What can and should we do about this as members of the NZFFA? I am not intending to offer advice as I have no expertise in this area. If you are a member of Federated Farmers you will have seen that there is a helpline to call. The main advice which I have heard being given is to make sure you talk to your neighbours and friends and show that you are someone they can also talk to. It seems that working alone for long periods, and being unable to share your problems with others, is not a healthy option, particularly if you have serious financial or emotional difficulties.

Forest Industry Safety Council

I do not get to see or hear much about what may be happening with the newly formed Forest Industry Safety Council. The new director Fiona Ewing was appointed to take up the role from 1 September. However she did say that she was going to be on extended leave from early September. By the next issue of Tree Grower I hope to be able to find out more about what is happening with this council. It is funded by the forestry levy and has a budget of around $500,000 a year.

One level below the Forest Industry Safety Council is the newly formed Operations Advisory Group. This replaces the levy funded committee of which I have been a member for the past six or seven years. I am not a representative on this new group. The NZFFA representative is Allan Laurie who many of you know and who has an excellent knowledge of forestry harvesting and a good understanding of safety in forestry.

Court cases

Over the past few months there have been a couple of court cases, one taken by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions and one by Worksafe. In the first case, Puketi Logging was found guilty of a charge under the Health and Safety in Employment Act relating to the death of 19-year-old Eramiha Pairama who died after he was struck while felling a tree near Whakatane in January 2013. The employers were found guilty, specifically of failing to take all practical steps to provide Eramiha with a safe working environment and particularly to ensure that he was not exposed to the dangers of the work he was being expected to manage on his own. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions undertook the private prosecution after the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment inspectors made the decision not to do so.

The second case was the prosecution by WorkSafe of forestry contractor, Paul Burr, for a forestry related manslaughter charge in relation to a worker, Lincoln Kidd, who was killed in a logging operation on a private forestry near Palmerston North. The forest contractor was found not guilty but Tim Hunt, who hired the contractor to fell the trees, pleaded guilty to the health and safety breaches. Now that it has been through the court process, I hope to be able to give a fuller picture of how this case evolved in the next issue of Tree Grower. In the meantime the main message is to make sure you know what your responsibilities are and make sure you keep good written records of what you have done.

Availability of information on safety

I am sure many of you will be asking, and some of you have already asked, what you should do to make sure all your health and safety requirements are covered with respect to the current laws and the new laws one which are expected to come into force in April 2016. At the moment there are two websites SafeTree and FarmSafe which have a lot of safety information relevant to farming and commercial forestry. They are unlikely to answer all your questions, but they are a good start.

The NZFFA website is significantly lacking in guidance and information with regard to health and safety in forestry. The good news is that progress is being made with advice on the current requirements and for help with the new law when it comes into effect. Not before time, I hear many of you say, and I can only agree.

When ACC approached the NZFFA over five years ago about health and safety for small-scale forestry we were going to be ahead of the game and have some easily accessible and useful health and safety information for small-scale forestry. Unfortunately, as many of you know, the ACC project was cancelled by them a year ago. It left us with a bit of a vacuum when it came to being able to supply good information about safety and where to get the remaining right advice.

Rosier future

However, the future seems a lot rosier, and even the present is looking good. For web based information a project is in hand to get some useful practical information on the NZFFA website. The project has started, the information is being compiled and the completion date is early December this year. So before Christmas you will have the basics on the website. The money being used for this project is coming from the levy and has to be spent before the end of 2015, so we cannot afford to fail.

In April 2016 the new health and safety law is due to take effect. In time for this WorkSafe are putting together a publication, which will also be available on the website, which will be a good practice guide for small-scale forest owners to manage harvesting safely. Some of you may have heard from other WorkSafe sources that this project is virtually complete. Unfortunately, this is not the case as it was only started in September. The content will be put out for consultation, and this is expected to be before Christmas, so that production will be on target for the beginning of April. I have been optimistic before when government departments have made promises but then let us down. Let us hope this is not a repeat.

Drug management workshops

The use of alcohol and drugs in the workplace is a continuing problem and not only in forestry.There was a series of levy-funded workshops around the country around the middle of the year for health and safety managers to learn more about how to manage drug testing and the use of drugs in the forestry workplace.

I am sure that most of the members of the NZFFA do not want to get involved in testing workers for the presence of drugs. However, although serious inroads have been made in recent years to reduce the incidence of drugs and alcohol affecting forestry workers, it is still a big problem. The presenter of the courses, Sue Nolan, who is an expert in testing for drugs said − ‘It is a nonsense to assume that standard testing for drugs works. Up to the year 2008 testing would have covered 95 per cent of drug use, but not anymore.’ This is not a comforting piece of information.

Apparently oral testing misses most of the drugs mainly because the standard was set in 2006 long before all the latest designer drugs were produced. Another reason is that mouth swab tests generally have to go to Australia for testing and in the time it takes to get there, most of the drug has degraded.

What can and should you do? Make sure your contractors have a good drug testing policy which they actively and regularly use. You should ask to see their records before agreeing a contract because many companies say they have a drug testing policy, but in reality do very little. They need to be testing urine samples of workers randomly on a regular basis. If they are only taking oral samples, be wary. If in doubt, only use experienced contractors who are members of the Forest Industry Contractors Association. If you want more information contact the Forest Owners Association and ask for a copy of the publication on eliminating alcohol and other drugs from the workplace.

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