33 forestry deaths in 5 years — time for the Govt. to actBy Helen Kelly Trades Council President
The forestry sector is our most dangerous sector to work in – already this year there have been two tragic deaths.
And since 2008, 33 workers have died at work, and 874 have been seriously injured in the sector. I am of course deeply saddened by these statistics – each death is a family, community, workplace losing someone who was loved, each injury is someone’s life being changed forever by something that happened at work. But while I am saddened, I can’t say I am surprised.
Government must step up
This industry will not change by itself. Unless the Government steps up and regulates for change in the way the forestry industry operates, the harsh reality is that we are very likely to see many more deaths forestry workers in the year to come.
Late last year the Ministry responsible for safety at work, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment released new standards for the industry. These new standards are far below those in Australian and other international forestry standards. The standards were developed without any worker participation, and for example do not include provisions for employee participation (despite this being a key recommendation in the Pike River Report and a legal requirement). There are many other areas where they are very weak (hours of work, bad weather etc).
Major contributor to accidents
We believe working conditions in the industry are a major contributor to the accident levels including long hours and fatigue, but the new standards put the onus on the workers to manage fatigue, requiring employers only to provide ‘regular rest breaks, a meal break, a daily or nightly sleep period and shared driver responsibilities’. This is far from best practice and we maintain that the standards need to include employment rights and the obligations of employers to have fair employment agreements.
We have proposed an inquiry to examine best international practice, look at how poor working conditions in the industry are contributing to the accident rate, and look at what needs to change to make the industry safer. We know the UK is seven times safer and Australia twice as safe.
Instead, we have the Ministry collaborating with the industry to fund “safety” breakfasts, and promote weak standards. Unions have been excluded from the development of the standards, and the breakfasts (where even the provision of information to workers on work rights has been denied). And workers continue to be blamed for these deaths without proper investigations into the underlying causes.
This shows that the Ministry and the government have learned nothing from the tragedy of Pike River. We need leadership in the area of health and safety, more stringent regulations and more of a focus on this growing problem. We need to change the way we see health and safety at work, especially in dangerous industries like forestry.