Forest owners: the safety battle is not yet won

18 August 2014

Point scoring in the media will not make our forests safer places to work, says the Forest Owners Association.

"The unions are claiming credit for a sudden reduction in the fatality and serious accident rate and Worksafe NZ is slamming us for a lack of safety leadership. These comments are unbalanced and unhelpful," says association president Paul Nicholls.

"Political posturing and blaming others won't save workers lives. To transform the industry's safety culture, participants will need to acknowledge their past shortcomings and to share experiences and knowledge. They are less likely to be open to this if they are being publicly pilloried."

He says this year's lower accident rate is great news, but points out that it's the long-term trend that counts – accident rates fluctuate from year to year. He also claims the Forest Owners Association (FOA) has been associated with every major safety initiative in the industry in the last 20 years.

"In that time the long-term serious accident rate in the sector has halved, relative to the number of trees harvested. Also, the accident rate in forests managed by FOA members has fallen to 25 per cent of that in non-member forests.

"This is not to say we are perfect. We still have a long way to go before we achieve our goal of being a zero serious harm industry, but we are heading in the right direction. Much of what we are doing clearly works.

"Our members lead by example. Our safety resources are freely available on the web to all operators. But we don't have the power to enforce good practice. That's the job of the regulator."

Mr Nicholls says improved safety requires the commitment of the owner of the forest, the employer, the employee, ACC and MBIE/Worksafe.

"Until last year, ACC and MBIE/Worksafe were not pulling their weight. They have acknowledged this and have pledged to work with the industry on safety initiatives and to properly resource the safety inspectorate. We welcome that.

"Worksafe inspections – especially of operations where the risks are the greatest – need to be routine. Not just something that's done in those years when there is a spike in the accident rate."

He says the trade union campaign and publicity about the industry-funded Independent Forest Safety Review (IFSR) have raised awareness of the need for safe work practices. But he argues that short-term campaigns do little to improve long-term safety outcomes.

"We have to make permanent changes to forest operations so that safety is still seen as a top priority when the publicity fades away. We are putting a lot of effort into a joint ACC/FOA injury prevention programme, with materials being rolled out over the next six months. Initiatives like these will combine with others to make permanent beneficial changes to our safety culture.

"We will also be paying close attention to the findings of the IFSR, which we expect to give us some further insights into what we can do better."

Mr Nicholls says the industry initiated the review with government support and sought to include the views of all people with an interest in the sector.

"The Combined Trade Unions is one of those parties, but they represent only 4 per cent of the forest workforce," he says.

"Submissions to the independent review panel have now closed. Let's now allow the panel to do its job. Meanwhile we strongly encourage forest owners and contractors to adopt the initiatives that we know will make their operations safer."

For more information, please ring Paul Nicholls, Tel 027 595 8708 or David Rhodes, Tel 027 495 5525