Forestry: A dangerous occupation

By: Patrick Cox

Forestry: A dangerous occupation Forestry: A dangerous occupation
Forestry: A dangerous occupation Forestry: A dangerous occupation

I’m a logging dinosaur who spent 25 years in forestry and obviously survived, when many of my friends, workmates and the famous did not, dying in the industry they loved.

Forestry: A dangerous occupation
Forestry: A dangerous occupation

Not sure if you can call them Bushmen any more, or are all those working in the forest industry these days categorised as forestry workers? Whatever the terminology, the amount of blood trickling through the sawdust from the death of forestry workers is a high price to pay to extract this valuable resource.

For the older Bushman (let's say, 50 and over and with 30-years-plus in this industry), they must be good, safe workers to be still alive. These people helped develop the industry standards in place today. The trainers of 30 years ago worked closely with the experienced crosscutters of the day, devising new and safe ways to fell and cut trees to length. Many of the cuts used to drop trees today have a value-added reason attached so there is a greater return to the forest owner: less pulled wood; no tears up the side of the tree; the most valuable part of the tree is at the butt end.

What does a logging contractor look for when employing his staff? Is there a set criteria for a Bushman? Here are a few thoughts of what might make a good Bushman and keep him alive:

  • An instinct for survival;
  • Common-sense;
  • Is he/she colour blind? A big percentage of men are colour blind and cannot see red on green, (two very common colours in forestry) so how good is high-visibility clothing in this situation?;
  • Observation — do they pay attention to everything happening around them?

Just because a prospective employee comes to you with a book full of modules does not mean he/she is any good in the practical environment. Classroom learning has its place, but there is no substitute for the real thing.

A few weeks ago I was invited to an engagement party in Auckland. As parties go, you inevitably meet new people and the invariable question gets asked: "What do you do for a living?" My reply to this question was, "Bushman by trade". The response from the enquiring young English fellow was, "S***, you kill a lot of Bushmen in New Zealand. Now, back in England, we would not stand for that." My hackles came up as I readied myself to defend my fellow Bushmen and the reputation of our logging industry here in New Zealand. But the sad reality is he's right. Too many are dying in our forest industry and have been ever since the early settlers dropped the first tree. From my conversation with the English lad I learnt, in the UK, they take the investigation to the highest level, the managing director of the forestry company or logging company will be held liable. We have had these rules in New Zealand before but loggers are still dying.

Today there are many calls for more attention to be given to the death rate of forestry workers, with the unions getting involved — "Too many deaths," they say — and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment producing a new Forestry Code of Practice to help reach the Government's 2020 goal of reducing workplace deaths and serious injury by twenty-five percent. Any one person capable of producing a plan to save a life in the bush needs to step forward. But, at the same time, let us also give credit for what has been achieved.

In the early seventies there was one bushman killed per month. Fast track to 2013's fatality rate and the difference would equate to a reduction of deaths by seventy-five percent. Sadly, it has taken far too long and now the new Forestry Code of Practice reduction of twenty-five percent by 2020 should equate to one death per year — hard to imagine that by 2020, it will have taken the academics over forty years to achieve.

So, where to from here? The forest industry cannot continue to grow on the blood of its workers. Loggers are loggers because they want to be, they are not forced into this occupation, they love the work, the outdoors and are not frightened of hard work. We could do with a lot more Kiwis who think like this. One of the problems with loggers is they do not speak out, it is not part of their nature — just go to work, do your job, get paid, go home. Those who are trying to put systems in place to make the bush a safer environment need to be commended. There is no quick fix. Since the mid-eighties they have been collecting data to analyse what part of the body was most at risk. The introduction of accident and near-miss reporting and hazard identification started to work. The industry had to step up to develop safety equipment, chaps, high-vis helmets, logger's belts to carry hammer and wedges, etc.

Those who continue to complain about the deaths in forestry need to leave the office, put on a hard hat and logging protective equipment, and spend a bit of time at the tree face, so they have a better understanding of an industry that has spent huge amounts of money and person-hours developing a code of practice that works. Something else to think about and no amount of training or codes of practice will prevent: those staying in the industry as a lifetime career will at some stage experience the following — Raynaud's disease (white fingers), bad backs, RSI and, more than likely, will have hearing loss. We have to accept this is a business for the tough, not the faint hearted.

I would like to dedicate this article to all the loggers who have lost their lives in the bush. Your deaths have not been in vain, as the industry continues to learn to protect its people. Every logging contractor going to work in the morning with a full crew wants a full crew in the gang bus at night. Forest owners have set high standards of compliance and do not want accidents or injuries. The industry has worked hard to lift its image in the eyes of others. More people drown in New Zealand than are killed in the bush because we put laws in place taking away the responsibility of parents to water-proof their children. But that is another story.

For the latest reviews, subscribe to our Deals On Wheels magazine here.

Keep up to date in the industry by signing up to Deals on Wheels' free newsletter or liking us on Facebook