FOREST owners need to do more to prevent workplace accidents in “one of the most dangerous” industries, the New Zealand Council of Trade Union president believes.
NZCTU president Helen Kelly says the Forest Owners Association needs to show more of a commitment to the action plan prepared with the Department of Labour and ACC aimed at minimising workplace accidents.
New Zealand Forest Owners Association health and safety committee chairman Sheldon Drummond says it is committed to embedding a safety culture in forests and plans to roll out a safety culture initiative this year.
A key outcome of this aims to change the culture of the workforce to one that “promotes worker safety”.
“There were 40 percent fewer serious harm injuries resulting in jobs in those areas where it has been introduced, and we look forward to implementing it nationwide this year,” said Mr Drummond.
The Forestry Sector Action Plan 2010-13 was prepared by the Department of Labour, ACC and New Zealand Forest Owners Association in response to the Department of Labour’s decision to focus its efforts on five priority sectors, including forestry.
The plan aims to minimise workplace accidents and sets out specific actions to reduce the work toll in the forestry sector, with a particular focus on health and safety systems and processes for the tasks of tree-felling and breaking-out, but Ms Kelly does not think the Forest Owners Association is taking it seriously.
Ms Kelly has been advocating for more protection for workers for some time and urges forest owners to do more to prevent accidents in the field, especially after a 44-year-old forestry worker died in the Wharerata ranges last month — the third fatality in the area in two years.
Forestry was “exceptionally dangerous” compared to other industries and had been indentified by the Department of Labour in its top five most dangerous workplaces list – ranking second to commercial fishing, she said.
“Most workplace accidents are avoidable with proper training and more stringent health and safety regulations,” she said.
Mr Drummond said there were initiatives under way and they were working with crews to promote safe work practices.
Safety meetings were compulsory for all staff and every crew had a representative that went to these meetings, he said.
A revised forest operations code of practice was also being completed and the industry was introducing certification for high-risk jobs such as breaking-out.
Gisborne forestry was at the resource- gathering stage of the safety culture initiative and would be adopting it as part of the national rollout.
Mr Drummond said forestry was not the most dangerous industry to work in “by a long shot”.
More people had accidents on four-wheel bikes on farms and in the construction sector than in forestry, he said.
A drug and alcohol-free policy in the industry had also been widely adopted by forest owners.
“People now take it on board that if you want to get into the industry you have to be drug-free.
“Initiatives like these are not easy to implement, but they have massively improved our workforce’s performance and well-being. All the long-term benefits greatly outweigh the short-term costs”
There are four areas to the drug-testing policy, which is compulsory for all forestry staff including management.
These are a pre-employment test for all prospective workers, reasonable cause where a worker is suspected of being “under the influence” on site, mandatory post-accident drug tests, and random testing.
“Everyone, including me, is liable for random drug tests throughout the year,” said Mr Drummond, who is also general manager of Juken New Zealand Forests.
“The crews love it and feel safer for it,” he said.
Ms Kelly said good worker representation would help to ensure health and safety regulations were monitored better, but she did not think forestry workers had the same opportunity as other industries to join a union.
“Forestry workers have no voice because they are employed remotely and as contractors and seasonal workers, but if workers were employed directly by forest owners it would give them more control over ensuring training and safety requirements were met,” she said.
That would mean the union could negotiate directly with the employer rather than tracking down independent working crews in the bush.
“But the unions can’t find them, so there’s no opportunity for them to join.”
Mr Drummond disputed the NZCTU president’s claims of a lack of worker representation.
“Everybody has a voice in the industry and the choice to join a union.”