Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Union praises inquests into 'intolerable' forest deaths

Ten forestry deaths were recorded last year. Photo / File
Ten forestry deaths were recorded last year. Photo / File

A union body leading prosecutions over the deaths of forestry workers has applauded a coroner for tackling the problem, which it described as unsustainable and intolerable.

Rotorua Coroner Wallace Bain yesterday opened the first of eight inquests relating to forestry deaths over recent years, with hopes the step would prove "the beginning of a path" to prevent further tragedies.

Dr Bain slammed New Zealand's health and safety record as extremely poor and cited damning figures over our international standing.

Ten forestry deaths were recorded last year - a rate seven times the average of Australia's.

While Australia had 6800 forestry workers and Canada had 29,000 over the past six years, compared with 4500 in New Zealand, our fatality rate was four times that of both countries for the period.

More than 30 workers were killed between 2007 and 2013, and the rate of ACC claims for work-related injuries in the industry was six times the rate for all sectors, he said.

Among those who died were Robert Thompson, killed in Thames in February last year, and Reece Reid, crushed by a falling tree in Pongaroa, Tararua, in November 2012.

Inquests into both cases began yesterday, with Dr Bain hearing from Michael Thomas, who was supervising Mr Reid when he died, and Murray Clunie, whose company Great Lake Harvesting employed the gang and was later prosecuted.

Both men grew emotional when recounting the circumstances of the 23-year-old's death, which came after he began felling trees without first waiting for Mr Thomas to reach him.

While Mr Thomas was operating a loader, Mr Reid felled one tree, then a second, which became "hung up" against another, before starting a third. When the first tree fell, Mr Thomas was making his way toward Mr Reid, who had received five days' training and had been instructed not to begin work unsupervised.

After the second fell, Mr Thomas leapt from his machine and began running toward the trainee, stumbling at times, but could not reach him.

The hung-up tree had crashed down, crushing him.

"I wish he had never started that morning and waited for me," Mr Thomas said.

Mr Thomas told the inquest he believed there was nothing he could have done to prevent the death, and disagreed that Mr Reid should have been under more direct supervision, given he was close by.

But Dr Bain questioned why Mr Thomas did not get off the machine or try to communicate with Mr Reid.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly, whose group will be taking private prosecutions against four other companies, said the case was a disgrace.

Ms Kelly was pleased Dr Bain was holding inquests into the deaths, some of which had been adjourned until newly filed criminal prosecutions had been concluded.

She expected the inquests would be a "piece in the puzzle" of solving the problem - something she believed could happen swiftly if the Government imposed stricter regulations and companies heeded recommendations to come from the inquest and an industry-led review.

Since 2008, there had been 900 recorded "serious harm" incidents and 32 deaths, but only a dozen prosecutions.

Ms Kelly said poor working conditions, a lack of training and not enough investment in safety infrastructure were among the problems.

Since the CTU announced it would be prosecuting M&A Cross over the death of Charles Finlay, killed while working in bush near Kinleith last year, emails had flowed in with offers of assistance, she said.

"These prosecutions are now very much public prosecutions. People have had enough."

- NZ Herald

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