Northland forestry workers are working up to 14-hour days and suffering dangerous levels of fatigue, a union rep warns.
The Government has announced stronger penalties for workplace health and safety offences in an overhaul that's being welcomed by unions and business groups alike.
"Our focus isn't on putting penalties in place for employers - it's more to put things in place at the top of the hill rather than the bottom," said First Union Northland organiser Garry Hetherington.
His comments follow last week's announcement of major health and safety reforms stemming from the Pike River disaster, unveiled by Labour Minister Simon Bridges.
The Government's new Working Safer reform package would introduce stronger penalties and court powers for health and safety offences, but do not introduce a corporate manslaughter charge.
Workplace accidents in Northland sparked 192 serious harm notifications to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment in 2012. Nationally 40 workers were killed on the job last year, including three across Northland.
In January, tree feller John Allan Sanderson, aged 40, died after a tree fell on him in a forest off Opouteke Rd, Pakotai, about 48km northwest of Whangarei. His leg was trapped and he lay undiscovered for several hours.
Mr Hetherington said tree fellers, in particular, needed more training and support.
"These are the guys that are working at ground zero and the focus needs to be on making sure these guys are equipped. These guys have been constantly pushed to put the timber on the ground to keep everyone else working."
He said he knew of workers putting in 14-hour days, once travelling times were factored in. "Fatigue is quite high."
Under the reforms, a person who engages in reckless conduct putting a worker at risk of injury or death would face a maximum penalty of $600,000 or five years' imprisonment, or both, or $3 million for a company. Present penalties are $500,000 or two years' imprisonment, or both.
Judges would be given power to make "adverse publicity orders" for individuals or companies which broke the law.
The package was a response to the recommendations of an independent taskforce on workplace health and safety, which followed the deaths of 29 men in the 2010 Pike River coal mine disaster.
Commenting on the reforms, Mr Bridges said: "This is the legacy we owe to the Pike River families, the families of the 75 people who are killed each year in New Zealand workplaces, and the estimated 600 to 900 who die annually from the long-term effects of occupational disease."
The reforms included a new regulator, Worksafe New Zealand, which would target high-risk sectors where the most workplace injuries and fatalities occurred.
The reforms were welcomed by business and unions.
Business New Zealand head Phil O'Reilly said it was a significant step in the right direction.
Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly welcomed proposals to include workers more in health and safety discussions and to strengthen the roles of health and safety representatives. additional reporting
By the numbers
192 Northland serious harm notifications in 2012.
3 workplace fatalities.
40 national workplace fatalities.
- Source: MBIE