Woeful workplace safety

Helen Kelly
Helen Kelly
Another death in New Zealand's forestry industry has prompted the Council of Trade Unions to again call for an inquiry into the safety standards of New Zealand's fourth largest export industry.

Whakatane man Eramyha Eruera Pairama (19) was killed when he was struck by a tree during forestry work in Taneatua, last week. His death has been referred to the coroner. And this week coroner reports have been released for two other forestry deaths, one for a Hawkes Bay man and one for a Balclutha resident.

CTU president Helen Kelly says the year barely started and there were two serious accidents and a death in what she calls the most dangerous industry in New Zealand. It was not viable for the Government to sit back and allow that type of safety record to go unchecked, she said. An inquiry was needed to examine best international practice, look at how poor working conditions in the industry were contributing to accidents and investigate what needed to change to make the industry safer.

In November, the CTU released a list showing 13 fatalities in the forestry industry since January 20, 2010. The latest death brought that total to 14, but the list does not include those killed in logging truck accidents or the many injuries. It is not just the forestry industry contributing to an appalling toll of people killed or injured at work. In the wake of the Pike River Mine disaster, the Government last year set up the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and safety to carry out the first wide-ranging review of the system in two decades.

The Safer Workplaces report by the task force revealed New Zealand's workplace safety record was twice as bad as Australia's and four times as bad Britain's and that those injured in the workplace each year would fill Eden Park four times over. The toll included 100 dead each year, 25,000 people hurt badly enough to be off work for a week, and 370 hospitalised and diagnosed with a life-threatening condition.

The task force, headed by Shell New Zealand chairman Rob Jager, was tasked with formulating policies aimed at cutting the toll 25% by 2020. Among the options could be much tougher laws aimed at forcing directors to make their workplaces safer.

The report suggests there are too few health and safety inspectors - meaning it is unlikely companies are visited often, if at all. In New Zealand, the consequences of prosecution range from a discharge without conviction to a fine of $500,000 and two years' imprisonment. While that might sound tough, the report said of the 2438 fines imposed by the courts since 1992, the average fine was $8275. In Australia, the top fine can be $A3 million ($NZ3.8 million) and in the United Kingdom it is unlimited.

This week, New Zealand's health and safety record was labelled woeful and a national disgrace by a consultant with 20 years' experience in the sector. In a submission to the task force, Robyn Levinge said New Zealand had never made workplace health and safety a priority, like it had with road safety, domestic violence and drink driving. By contrast, in Australia and the UK, continual change and improvement was being led by industry.

One of the biggest problems, she said, was a lack of focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the sector which employed most New Zealanders. There was no robust data showing how many accidents and injuries occurred in that sector, partly because it was so hard to keep track of them all.

Any workplace death or injury is a tragedy because of the consequences it brings to families and society in general. But as Mr Jager points out, while leadership from directors is vital, workplace safety is a matter for everybody - workers and customers included. A 25% reduction is a realistic target, but the task force is more ambitious and wants nothing short of the kind of cultural shift that has seen attitudes to smoking, drink-driving and the use of sunscreen change for the better.

Forestry is a risky industry because of the nature of the work and machines operated by workers. But other industries are not immune. As a country, we need to take better care of our workers and ourselves. The task force's final report in April should be seen as a watershed.

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