Clarky's Comment - February

Peter Clark

It is now almost one year since the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 came into force. It is too early to understand what impact this Act is having on workplace harm. What we can say is that corporate NZ boards and CEOs are well aware of their duties as officers. Can the same be said for the thousands of SMEs that make up the farms, contractors, suppliers and workers that form the backbone of the NZ economy? I doubt that most officers in SMEs will bother trying to learn about the new Act, or upskill in safety leadership until there are a few highly publicised cases of successful prosecutions. Unfortunate, but that is human nature!

ACC statistics inform us that New Zealanders are around 7-8 times more likely to be injured at home, on holiday, on the roads, or in sport, than they are at work. While I have no doubt that better risk and hazard awareness at work will be having some impact on risk-taking behaviours outside of work, it also appears to me that a better safety awareness and culture outside of work is needed to reduce workplace harm. Given where most of the harm is taking place I do wonder why there is not more effort and education placed on preventing non-work accidents.

In corporate forestry at least we are seeing strong safety leadership. That really got a boost when our “license to operate” came under threat following 10 fatalities in 2013, but has been assisted by active participation of forestry leaders in the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, dating back since 2010, even before Pike River, and by the Independent Forestry Safety Review in 2014. More recently the Forest Industry Safety Council is providing leadership and resources for forest managers and contractors hosted on its Safetree website.

In New Zealand forestry there is no case for complacency. Serious harm is still way too common and the risks are increasing. Why?

  • The national harvest is set to expand as mid-1990's plantings mature.
  • Most of the expansion is on steep terrain and is first rotation, meaning harvest-ready access is still to be formed and cable systems will be used to extract trees.
  • There is an emerging shortage of skilled / experienced machine operators and contractors to undertake this work. If we are to avoid a lowering of skills and standards we will need active recruitment and effective training. Where will the trainers come from?
  • The ETS review is under way. It is quite obvious to all that we will need more trees planted if we are to avoid an over-reliance on importing foreign credits to meet our Paris Accord commitments. New planting on hill country brings its own labour recruitment and safety challenges. How do we attract young Kiwis to a career in forestry unless forestry work is widely perceived as safe?

These challenges must be addressed. Neither the government nor the private sector can do this alone. The private sector needs the right operating environment and supportive social and business policies. The government needs private sector investment and strong safety leadership.

The Safe Start breakfasts that were run across New Zealand by most large forestry firms are proving to be a great opportunity not only to reinforce the importance of safe systems and behaviours, but also to celebrate examples of great safety outcomes by individual forestry workers and crews. We should try to learn more from what goes right!