Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Bosses face tough new safety laws

Blair Palmer. Photo / Supplied
Blair Palmer. Photo / Supplied

Forest owners, as well as contractors, could have been liable for fines of up to $3 million if Napier forestry worker Blair Palmer had been killed by a falling tree today rather than last week.

Last Thursday Mr Palmer, 53, became the fourth person to die in the forestry industry this year, a record of more than one death a month which is even more than the 10 deaths in 2013 which helped spur the Government into tightening the health and safety law.

The new Health and Safety at Work Act, which comes into force today, makes every "person conducting a business or undertaking" (PCBU) liable for fines of up to $3 million for a company and up to five years' jail and fines of up to $600,000 for company chief executives and directors.

The previous penalty was up to two years' jail and a $500,000 fine.

Mr Palmer, a foreman for Napier-based D G Glenn Logging, died while felling a tree away from other members of his crew.

His body was found after he failed to make his hourly check-in call.

George Adams, an Auckland director who chaired a 2014 forestry safety review and now leads the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum, said D G Glenn Logging and Pan Pac Forest Products, as owners of the forest where Mr Palmer was working, will now be PCBUs.

"Previously, when this incident took place, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to have prosecuted the forest owner," he said.

Pan Pac managing director Doug Ducker said his company and its Japanese owners, Oji Green Resources, were horrified at Mr Palmer's death - the only death in a Pan Pac forest in 15 years.

"The shareholder sensitivities of this matter are extremely strong. They are extremely sensitive to this and extremely concerned about it."

Mr Ducker said D G Glenn Logging was Pan Pac's primary logging contractor, and Mr Palmer had more than 30 years' forestry experience.

"He was well known to our forestry staff," he said. "If the family requires any assistance, that offer is there and that will happen."

Mr Palmer's widow, Cushla, could not be contacted yesterday but many friends have posted sympathetic messages on her Facebook page.

D G Glenn Logging director Dennis Glenn declined to comment. "I'm letting the family grieve," he said.

First Union secretary Robert Reid said the industry should think about whether it was safe for people to fell trees alone.

"It's a debate, because it will increase costs, but we can't afford to have an industry which is just telling people to keep working now that we're back to more than one death a month," he said.

But Mr Ducker said it was unclear whether a colleague could have saved Mr Palmer.

"The particular activity that Blair was involved in was not normal harvesting, he was preparing a new harvesting site," he said.

"Whether you would normally assign two people to that is a challenge. Whether it would have stopped this incident, we'll have to see."

WorkSafe is investigating.

Safer workplaces

Why is the law changing?

New Zealand had the highest workplace death rate of nine developed countries surveyed in 2013. NZ workers were twice as likely to die at work as British workers after adjusting for population and industry structure.

What is changing?

All "persons conducting a business or undertaking" (PCBUs) at a workplace, including their officers and directors, now have a duty to proactively ensure that workplaces are safe physically and psychologically. Previously only a worker's direct employer was responsible. PCBUs also now have a duty to consult their workers on health and safety issues, and in high-risk sectors or companies with more than 20 workers they must appoint health and safety representatives.

Penalties jump from a maximum of two years' jail and a $500,000 fine to five years' jail for officers and directors and fines of up to $3 million for companies.

How will it affect employers?

Some school principals have been reported to be putting their homes into trusts to avoid losing them if they are prosecuted. But Employers and Manufacturers Association safety manager Paul Jarvie says Worksafe is focused on reducing accidents in high-risk sectors such as forestry and mining and is not likely to prosecute schools. "Schools and RSAs and that kind of thing, while they still have a duty, are not on their radar," he says.

How will it affect workers?

Workers are now required to take reasonable care for the safety of themselves and other workers and to follow any reasonable health and safety policy or instruction from their PCBU. They can be fined up to $300,000 or face five years' jail if they recklessly fail to do this. Workers also have a duty to be engaged about health and safety issues likely to affect them and must be given reasonable opportunities to participate in ongoing health and safety improvements.

- NZ Herald

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