19 Jul 2018

Stricter rules urged as forestry deaths rise again

2:04 pm on 19 July 2018

The mother of a forestry worker killed in 2013 fears industry deaths are on the rise again and says the campaign to save lives has suffered since union leader Helen Kelly died two years ago.

There have been four forestry deaths this year.

There have been four forestry deaths this year. Photo: 123RF

Selina Eruera lost her son, Eramiha Pairama, when he was killed by a falling tree five years ago.

The 19-year-old was one of ten forestry workers who died that year and his case was also one of the two successful prosecutions the Council of Trade Unions took against employers.

The following year, the death toll dropped dramatically to just one at the height of the publicity over the industry's poor safety record.

The CTU president at the time, Helen Kelly, also led a campaign to force industry changes but Ms Eruera said the momentum appeared to have been lost since Ms Kelly's death in 2016.

"She was the main force into, promoting, if you want to say, health and safety in forestry," said Ms Eruera.

"Now that everybody has sort of gone quiet, the public eye is not so much on forestry, they start playing up again."

Forestry has the highest death rate of all industries.

Four workers have been killed so far this year - the most recent just three days ago in Nelson.

That compares with seven deaths for the whole of last year.

Fiona Ewing from the Forestry Industry Safety Council said companies were doing more to keep protect staff.

"We have a focus on leadership, worker engagement and risk management and the risk management piece is really around those critical risk areas ... the things that we know kill and seriously injure the people that work in forestry," she said.

"So for example, tree felling, breaking out, working in and around vehicles, and we work very closely with the regulator WorkSafe on the programmes that we develop."

But Ms Ewing agreed that was not enough and that the death toll was still too high.

"We have seen improvements in culture, what we haven't really seen yet is that improvement in fatality figures," she said.

"Cultural change takes time, particularly when you're dealing with a whole sector."

Selina Eruera said she wanted faster change.

"It used to be regulated, but it's not anymore. And WorkSafe comes into play when the person has had a serious accident and it's reported to WorkSafe."

Ms Eruera said she wanted more done to prevent serious injuries happening in the first place.

Lawyer Nigel Hampton, who has led successful private prosecutions for forestry deaths, told Morning Report new policies have not been properly applied by forestry operators.

Mr Hampton said it was appalling that WorkSafe was not taking an aggressive, proactive line against companies.

"I think as a result of the campaign that Helen took deaths dropped away ... [but] we're on the rise again and I believe there are two or three things responsible; one the new policies are not being properly applied by the owners and operators, two the regulators - WorkSafe - is far too reactive only," he said.

"They're not taking, what I thought we might have convinced them should be their line, a more aggressive line - a stance.

"I think it's appalling. A regulator such as WorkSafe, is there to make sure that regulations are enforced, to prevent such things from happening."

He said he feared the same lack of regulatory oversight of forestry as happened in mining before the Pike River tragedy.

"I'm concerned that we're seeing something of the same things that took place in the tragedy that was Pike River where a regulator there, the department of labour, now WorkSafe - didn't try to enforce regulations that would've prevented that tragedy.

He said to prevent further deaths forestry owners and operators should review their applications of policies with proper safety plans for workers, and WorkSafe should be out on the field to monitor.

WorkSafe has rejected criticism of its approach to enforcement.

Chief executive Nicole Rosie said the agency had doubled the number of inspectors from six to 12 this year and was making more site visits and issuing more enforcement notices than ever before.

The CTU and the First Union, which represents forestry workers, refused to comment.