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Clarky's Comment - May 2013, Four Deaths in Four Months

Four Deaths in Four Months is Four too many!

Many forest managers and contractors have had a strong focus on accident reduction over the past 15 years with considerable progress made on reducing serious injuries relative to production. The industry accepts that it must work towards zero harm in the workplace. Data illustrates that progress is being made, namely:

  1. ACC accident claims fell from 600 in 1995 to close to 300 by 2010, a 50% reduction. Over the same period the annual forestry harvest increased nearly 50% from 16.5 million m³ to over 24 million m³.
  2. When measured against industry activity, there has been a 75% reduction in fatality rates since 1965. This is largely attributable to regulation, engineering improvements, new technology and improved training. While that will be little consolation to those who have lost loved ones, we do believe that with leadership commitment, improving safety culture, safe systems of work and investment in, and adoption of, technology, we can drive serious harm out of the industry.
  3. Industry accident statistics collected in the IRIS database that is contributed to by most of the larger forest owners in New Zealand show the Lost Time Industry Frequency Rate (LTIFR) measured per million hours worked falling from 15.5 in 2005 to 12.5 in 2012.
  4. Contrary to some statements made that NZ forestry is performing much worse than our Australian counterparts, data published by Safe Work Australia National Data Set for Compensation-based Statistics (NDS) shows LTIFR for Australian Forestry and Logging ranging from 9.1 to 15 from 2006/07 to 2010/11. The comparison is complicated by the fact that in IRIS we count any lost time whereas the Australian data only records lost time when it is a week or more.
  5. We suspect the Australians are performing slightly better on a like-for-like basis but this in large part reflects the much higher level of mechanisation in Australian harvesting operations and the generally easier terrain. Current research into harvest equipment and systems to enable increased mechanisation in New Zealand's steeper terrain is timely.

Despite the gains made over the last two decades we now appear to be flat-lining and must make the next step change. As well as more mechanisation, making forestry work safer will involve changes to attitudes towards risk-taking. Site manager and worker communication and participation and strong leadership from company managers, supervisors and boards is needed to lead cultural change.

The enquiry into the Pike River tragedy and the recent release of the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, as well as moves by government to re-organise and strengthen the regulator, has put companies and boards across all sectors on notice that change is afoot. This is welcomed by the forestry sector to help drive the changes we need.

The new Approved Code of Practice that was developed over the last two years with contractor and worker input is a positive development. It has tightened up the procedures and rules in many tasks, notably in "breaking out", a particularly hazardous task if the rules are not followed.

A further area that is receiving focus is the management of fatigue. While some forestry employers may need to examine work hours there are two causes of fatigue that have little bearing on work hours. These are:

  1. Partying hard, possibly involving alcohol and/or drugs; and
  2. Lack of sleep.

Research has shown that THC (cannabis) slows reaction times, and lack of sleep can have a similar effect on thinking and reactions as over-indulgence in alcohol.

Now, those of you with teen-age or young adult children will know that many young New Zealanders, especially males, view themselves as bullet-proof, at least until they do have a serious accident or close call. And some like to lead a work-hard and play-hard type of lifestyle. If there is one omission from the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety report it is that there is no mention of the role that recreational drug use plays in workplace accidents. We know from random testing and post-incident testing in the forestry sector that THC, in particular, shows up too often.

But employers are not the social police, and until we have better community education about the impacts of lack of sleep and drugs, and a culture shift that reduces risk-taking both at work and in respect of turning up to work in a fully "work-fit" state then the best employers can do is manage these risks. As employers can only manage what is known to them, an open and supportive workplace culture (that can only be led from the owner and site boss) is the start point. If the morning tailgate meetings are able to identify individuals that are not 100% work-fit then the obligation on the employer is not to put them into any hazardous tasks or situation. This must be done in a manner that is supportive and tolerant as the person who knows best if anyone is not fully work-fit is the worker him/herself. And why would they "fess up" if that resulted in some sanction or negative consequence?