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Staying safe on a dangerous job

Thursday 31st July 2014

Nick* works in logging, driving an excavator, shovelling logs, and pulling down trees. A couple of years ago, he was assisting a co-worker by pushing over a tree. The co-worker was a safe distance away from the tree, but when the tree went over, it landed on a branch. The branch “flicked up like a helicopter”, he says, and came down and landed right beside the co-worker.

Forestry had the second highest workplace fatality rate of any industry last year, with 10 workers killed. Only agriculture had more fatalities.

Photo: Photo NZ

“It would have killed him,” remembers Nick, 37. “It landed right by his feet, brushed past his arm.”

It was a near miss in an industry that has had more than its fair share of fatalities. After 10 forestry workers were killed and more than 150 injured on the job last year, an independent panel was established to investigate the industry’s safety record. It pinpointed a lack of both training and mandatory safety standards.

The Forest Owners Association president Paul Nicholls, backed the panel’s findings, telling Radio New Zealand there are commercial forest harvesting operations where people have not been adequately trained. He says that’s “just unacceptable now”.

New legislation will put the onus on employers to keep their employees safe.

Photo: Photo NZ

When you’ve worked in forestry for as long as Nick has – more than 20 years – you see a lot of accidents. Even you do everything right, he says, there’s always something that can go wrong.

Nick says many workers have little experience and no training, and as contractors look to squeeze margins, safety concerns often fall by the wayside as staff are pushed to work longer hours, even in bad weather.

“Guys that have been out doing it for a while know who [contractors] to avoid – but you get a newbie, someone who has done one or two years in the bush, they don’t know. It’s hard for them, they get pushed around.”

Nick says when workers are tired and under pressure to get the job done, they take shortcuts – and that there aren’t adequate checks in place for that. “What have those guys been doing the night before? Are they drinking, are they on drugs, you know … I still see people passing and I know they’re druggies,” he says. “Then they get up in the morning and go to work tired, and then they’re falling asleep in the machine while the [tree feller] is out in front of it.”

It’s easy to blame individual workers, but the reality is, New Zealand’s workplace safety records are woeful across all industries, with about 1 in 10 workers harmed every year. Some 200,000 claims are made to ACC for costs associated with work-related injuries and illnesses.

And every week, one to two people are killed at work, adding up to about 75 fatalities a year. That means you’re about six times more likely to die on the job in New Zealand than you are working in the UK, and about 1.5 to 2 times more likely than you would be in Australia. A conservative estimate in a report [pdf] for the New Zealand Injury Prevention Strategy puts the cost of those deaths at about $3.5 billion. (A further 600 - 900 die from occupational disease, like from contact with asbestos, silica from cutting concrete, or industrial solvents.)

Since the Pike River disaster in 2010, in which 29 workers died, the workplace health and safety system has been under scrutiny. The report of the Pike River Royal Commission called New Zealand’s record “poor” compared to other advanced countries:

In relation to underground coal mining New Zealand has had a tragedy every generation or so, after the lessons of previous tragedies have been forgotten. This time the lessons must be remembered. Legislative, structural and attitudinal change is needed if future tragedies are to be avoided. Government, industry and workers need to work together. That would be the best way to show respect for the 29 men who never returned home on 19 November 2010, and for their loved ones who continue to suffer.

Nick says there have been improvements made in the past 12 months. “We have safety meetings and sign papers every morning saying we’ve attended the safety meeting and noting any new hazards,” he says. “Everyone knows that if they get caught doing something, they’re down the road, so no one wants that.”

Kiwis would be shocked if they knew how hard some people have to work. If you live in Auckland or Wellington, you think this is a developed country. But it’s not.”

A decline in log sales means employment in the industry is already precarious, and EPMU health and safety coordinator Fritz Drissner says the increase in competition can further jeopardise workers’ safety. “It’s a race to the bottom in terms of pricing the job, so there’s no margin for health and safety.” He says a lot of companies have cut supervisors – because they don’t make any money – so there’s no one focused on safety. And training is expensive.

“In other countries when it rains, they go and sit in the portacom until it stops. Here, they've got to work through all the weather. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid.” And in an industry that runs on contractors, that makes for “unacceptable” working conditions.

Drissner cites workers starting work in the dark before dawn; working extended shifts; and often working a second or third job – often far away from home. “It’s absolutely third world. Kiwis would be shocked if they knew how hard some people have to work. If you live in Auckland or Wellington, you think this is a developed country. But it’s not.”

Forestry is one of the four sectors that the recently-established Worksafe NZ is focusing on, in an attempt to reduce workplace death and injury by 25 per cent by 2020.

Francois Barton, the manager of national programmes for the agency, says the four industries – forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and construction – account for 45 per cent of all injuries, but 65 percent of all fatalities. They also overwhelmingly employ men, and often Maori, Pacific Islanders and new migrants.

Workplace fatalities chart
Source: WorkSafe NZ

The Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, which was established by the Government in 2012 said it found no one factor [pdf] behind New Zealand’s poor health and safety record. It cites confusing regulation; a weak regulator; poor worker engagement and representation; inadequate leadership and implementation; and a risk-tolerant culture, evidenced by the stereotypical Kiwi “She’ll be right” attitude.

The fundamental issue is systemic. Patterns repeat, and common health and safety failings for which simple preventive measures can often be taken continue to contribute significantly to the toll. We all too often fail to learn from the experiences of major disasters, both at home and abroad.

Barton says improvements are being made: in both forestry and construction, there’s been about a 25 per cent reduction in the sorts of serious harm the agency would normally have seen by this time in the year. “This is probably the first year I’m starting to see numbers going in the right direction,” he says. But he is only cautiously optimistic.

“I’d want to be really clear, I don’t think this is sustainable change. We’re not on that path yet. I think what we’re seeing at the moment, we’ve spoken to colleagues in British Columbia in Canada about their forestry deaths, and their observation is that when the public blowtorch of scrutiny comes down on something, everybody focuses a bit more. The challenge is how do you lock in that attention, planning and investment?”

The EPMU’s Fritz Drissner agrees that change is happening and points to legislation, expected to come into force next year, that will put the onus on employers to keep their employees safe and “beef up” penalties for non-compliance. (Submissions on the regulations to support the law close, incidentally, tomorrow.)

But he points out that in unstructured and informal work environments, people are often scared for their jobs, and so don’t raise concerns about safety. “It’s just so precarious. And that doesn’t give them the courage to actually start complaining if there are issues.” He’s seen the cost of training and safety equipment shift away from employers and onto individual workers.

Francois Barton concedes that speaking up can be hard, especially for young workers. “We wouldn’t underestimate that reality ... that there is a vulnerability there,” he says “That’s why there’s a health and safety regulator. That’s why Worksafe NZ is here. It’s also why people sign employment agreements.”

Barton says it’s the responsibility of bosses to manage employees’ fatigue, in the same way that many companies have drug and alcohol management policies. “Your boss shouldn’t be asking you to work until you’re physically exhausted and continue to do dangerous things… It’s a fair expectation that you should be able to have a sense that your boss is across what’s a reasonable day’s work.

“If you create the risk, and you benefit from the risk, it’s your job to manage it.”

“I’m not willing to sit in front of a room full of people and say ‘Well, out of you 100, I can live with you two being permanently maimed and you killed’

He points to the goal of ”zero harm”, which the Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum has signed up to. Whether that’s actually achievable he allows is a good question – but it’s a step in the right direction, given New Zealand’s current woeful record.

“I’m not willing to sit in front of a room full of people and say ‘Well, out of you 100, I can live with you two being permanently maimed and you killed’... So as an aspiration, what other number can be acceptable? But that then hits the real world.”

Nick, the forester, thinks sometimes stuff just goes wrong – and that accidents are sometimes going to happen, with all the management, oversight and safety standards in the world. “I don’t think you’ll cure that. Whether you're the safest guy in the world, tree felling is a dangerous thing to do. You can’t just blame The Man all the time.”

So, taking it as a given that the risk will always be there, does he think it’s worth it?

Not really, he says. Not for the pay. “It’s an enjoyable job to do, but the thing is, it’s not really worth it. But then, even if the pay was sky high, it’s still a dangerous job.”

Fritz Drissner is more optimistic. He says accidents happens when a number of smaller issues snowball. “There’s always a lot of things that come together in an unfortunate situation, so you just have to work on each of those things – and control what you can control.” New legislation, a regulator with more teeth, and cooperation from both industry and workers might go part of the way towards more near misses, and fewer deaths.