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‘Nothing has changed’

Grieving families want answers to ‘systemic’ forestry safety issues

“Our people on the ground are still getting killed,” said Richard Brooking as he stood outside Gisborne Courthouse yesterday, where the coroner’s inquest into the death of his son Niko Brooking-Hodgson was being held.

Mr Brooking is frustrated, not only because he and his whanau had to fight five years for the inquest but also because he says “no meaningful change” has happened in the forestry industry and people are still losing their lives.

“Three weeks ago another man lost his life in Napier,” he said.

Mr Brooking said the people on the ground needed to be at the decision-making tables, to ensure better outcomes in the health and safety of being a forestry worker. But it was not happening.

Four other families who also lost sons in forestry accidents turned out to support the Brooking family yesterday.

Niko’s grandmother Polly Hodgson said it was humbling to see the support outside the courtroom.

She wants justice for Niko — and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Caroline Callow was there in memory of her son Ken Callow, who was 34 when in October 2011 he was crushed by a falling, rotten pine tree while working in the Whareratas.

She knows what it is like to lose a son in a forestry accident and not have anyone prosecuted as well.

Mrs Callow remembers the exact words a WorkSafe person said to her.

“He said my son was ‘the architect of his own demise’. Which pretty much said our son killed himself.”

In 2013 Ken’s image was used on a billboard campaign by the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to force a Government inquiry, and better safety and employment conditions.

Mrs Callow said nothing had changed.

Her son worked for the same contractor 23-year-old Piri Bartlett worked for when he went to work in a forest on the East Cape in August, 2017, and never came home.

Karen Black’s son Nathan (Nate) Miller was at work inland from Tolaga Bay in February 2019, when he was struck by a log. He suffered severe injuries to his abdomen and legs and was unable to be revived by his workmates.

Ms Black and her partner Grant Te Purei were there to support the Brooking whanau.

“Things have got to change,” she said.

Ash Day was there to support her sister, Niko’s partner, and her niece, who was three years old when she lost her father Niko.

“She is growing up without her dad. It could have been avoided. This is the chance to prevent future losses in the forest.”

Workers on the ground ‘don’t have a say’

Mr Brooking said the men on the ground in forestry don’t have a say.

“They should have an opportunity to be at those meetings where decisions are made.

“It’s all swivel chairs with air conditioning making the decisions and it is not working. We are still losing too many lives.

“We’ve had a five year fight to get to an inquest after there was no prosecution. It’s pretty gut-wrenching really. We’re just here to hold the mana of our loved ones. Because when there’s no prosecution it looks like it’s their fault.”

Mr Brooking is employed by WorkSafe as a support person. Some people tell him he has sold out as it is the same company accused of not pressing for prosecutions enough after a forestry accident.

“But I’m passionate about keeping our people alive. Too many of our people are dying on the ground.”

Forestry worker advocate and whanau support person Candice Gate said the problem was systemic.

“Victim blaming is status quo, and we need to look at who makes the decisions.

“From where I am sitting it seems the forestry industry is exploiting people and place.”

Mrs Gate said poor decisions made 30 years ago to plant pine trees on hilly and dangerous terrain were not the problem of today’s workers.

“Leave the trees behind. And most importantly start integral planning now, and include the workers on the ground, for the trees our grandchildren may be logging. This is inter-generational and we need to be strategic.

“If Maori are going to be the largest forestry businesses by 2050 then where is their voice?

“Are the iwi leaders engaged and forestry owners engaged? Or will they be left the mess of broken lives, people and land to deal with after all the money is gone and families ruined.

“Maori are 55 percent more likely to be harmed or killed in forestry and that inequity gap is continuing to grow.”

It was hard to recruit workers into the forestry industry because of the safety record and the roading network and port was not even coping in current conditions, she said.

“The forestry industry has been given ample time and direction to make changes to improve conditions and safety of workers. But the industry’s priorities have been more focused on production and profit, which means lives continue to be lost.

“We need to be proactive. Get breaker-outs and tree fallers off the ground and into machines.”

'Seriously Inefficient'

Coronial inquest

FRUSTRATED: Five families whose loved ones have died while working in the forestry industry gathered outside Gisborne Courthouse yesterday to support Niko Brooking-Hodgson's family, as the coroner’s inquest into how he died was heard inside. They say nothing has changed in the industry since their sons died. Whanau support person Candice Gate says the industry has forestry workers by the scruff of the neck. “Workers are gone from dark until dark, working in the steepest conditions, breaking their bodies, and still not making ends meet. Workers are unsupported, in isolated rural communities, feeling like there are no other options to provide for their whanau.” Picture by Rebecca Grunwell