Forestry: Troubled times ahead for loggers

By: Patrick Cox, Photography by: Patrick Cox

Troubled times ahead for loggers Troubled times ahead for loggers
Troubled times ahead for loggers Troubled times ahead for loggers

The logging industry is probably the most dangerous occupation one can choose — you’d be safer joining the army during wartime, says Patrick Cox.

With any dangerous occupation, there will always be casualties — that's just a fact and no matter how hard a logging contractor tries to sort out the good from the down-right useless when going through the employment process, he won't always get it right. But get it wrong and you're employing dead men.

It would appear the problem of logging accidents isn't going to go away and that everyone is giving their two-cents-worth on how to fix the problem. I notice the New Zealand Herald had an in-depth point of view about the problem a couple of weeks back.

It makes you wonder, how did the logging industry's accident rate get so bad? Personally, I think the logging industry safety standard is in good shape, considering its history and how it got to where it is today.

So let us step back a little and see where the problem started. The industry through the sixties, seventies and eighties was managed by loggers who had come up through the ranks to become forest managers, supervisors, foremen, leading hands — they had an understanding of the industry from the forest floor up. They understood the needs of loggers, crew sizes were bigger and production targets where more realistic and achievable.

A logger in these times could earn a third more than working in town. The industry was just as dangerous then, but the pay reflected this. Therefore, what happened? In one word: Rogernomics. Big companies stepped into the role of forest owners, profit-driven and with the need to show a return to their shareholders. They, and successive governments, systematically went about changing the industry.

Firstly they destroyed the unions. The unions had a part to play. Many of us did not like the unions, but they did do one thing — they protected the workers from these company forest owners.

With the unions gone, the contractors become vulnerable. The companies then went about weeding out those in their employ with any logging experience and in a management position that might have been a little sympathetic to loggers and replaced them with university graduates that had a forestry degree, profit-driven new-age foresters with absolutely no practical logging experience.

At about the same time OSH was starting to kick in, with the logging industry the first to feel the heavy hand of this new government department. The forest companies soon learnt how to pass the responsibility down the line, before it finally stopped at the last person in the food chain, the logger.

The onus was put on loggers to make their industry safe. This sounds OK but the companies didn't consult with the loggers to help design and develop safety equipment. They just went to manufacturers and told them what they wanted. In these early developmental years, safety equipment was poorly designed and put in place, just to comply with the new OSH requirements.

By the late eighties and early nineties a huge number of experienced logging contractors were put out to pasture, their services no longer required. New-age loggers were brought into the industry. In my opinion, this set the logging industry backwards as a huge amount of logging experience was lost to the industry — good practical experience that would have helped shape the needed safety requirements the industry was struggling with.

The profit-driven companies then drove up targets and slashed logging rates and crew sizes alike. Loggers were working harder for less pay while trying to work twice as safe — a recipe for disaster.

So, where are we now? Is this another typical New Zealand scenario of continually repeating our mistakes? Governments, unions, forest owners must all accept responsibility for what your predecessors put in place.

You might ask why are the unions in this group? Simple. They were not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the big companies and failed to protect their workers and their rights. Now they want to reclaim that right. Too late, it will not happen.

In the interim, loggers have continued to look to the future, trying to make their industry safe on very restricted budgets, spending huge amounts of time and money on training and compliance to the regulatory requirements, only to have men who do not follow the rules and take risks and consequently have serious accidents or kill themselves. Where have all the logging-experienced trainers gone?

The current economic climate in New Zealand does not lend itself to creating a safe working environment. This is across the board in all industries. Are the financial constraints of concern? Yes to that. Are the wages offered enough to keep experienced loggers in the industry? Would the lure of bigger wages lure a more qualified person?

As always, contractors are very independent people and often find themselves tendering for blocks. Do they sharpen their pencil too fine and cut their margin to the bone just to get the job? Have the forest owner/managers exploited this competitive nature of the business at the expense of safety?

The reality is no. No company wants blood on their hands and will always push safety first, but from the outside looking in, tight budgets do not help. The logging industry needs money pumping into it to develop a safety system that works.

A steering committee made up of contractors and workers investigating and developing their own safety standards would be a good place to start. Rotate the members every two years, to stand united to make the industry safe.

Better wages to entice better workers. Why would you want to work in the most dangerous industry for peanuts? You know what happens when you pay this sort of money.

The Government has to accept responsibility for what has happened. It created the New Zealand environment to be competitive with the rest of the world. Is that all our forestry workers are worth – profit?

There's word on the bush telegraph to get as many men off chainsaws as possible and get everything done by machine, which is another band-aid fix. That is impossible. This industry will always have chainsaw operators. Train them properly from day one, pay them well, listen to them when the wind is too high and making the forest dangerous — it is easier to pull them off the job and still have them alive to work the next day.

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