Katie Holland is the Rotorua Daily Post deputy editor

Coroner credits Helen Kelly for making forestry in New Zealand safer

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Maryanne Butler-Finlay, who lost her husband, Charles Finlay, in a forestry accident, holds his photo during a Workers Memorial Day rememberance ceremony. Photo/File
Maryanne Butler-Finlay, who lost her husband, Charles Finlay, in a forestry accident, holds his photo during a Workers Memorial Day rememberance ceremony. Photo/File

A coroner has credited the work done by late union boss Helen Kelly as being one of the primary reasons why New Zealand's forestry sector is now a safer place to work than it was a few years ago.

Rotorua coroner Wallace Bain has tonight released his findings into three of the eight forestry deaths he held inquests into in Rotorua and Taneatua in the last few years. Four more will be released next week while one has already been released.

The inquests inquired into the causes and circumstances of the deaths to see whether any recommendations could be made in respect of forestry safety.

The eight deaths happened between March 2012 and November 2013 and "represented a very dark period in Worksafe Health & Safety in the New Zealand forestry sector", Coroner Bain said in his findings.

The three men - Eramiha Pairama, Charles Finlay and David Beamsley - all died while working in forests around the Bay of Plenty and central North Island in 2013.

Mr Pairama, 19, died in Taneatua, Mr Finlay, 45, in Kinleith, Tokoroa, and Mr Beamsley, 63, in the Kaingaroa Forest.

While Coroner Bain set out evidence into the particular circumstances of each man's death, he reached common findings for all in relation to general issues of safety. Coroner Bain noted the Independent Forestry Safety Review was released in October 2014, which explored many of the issues relevant to the men's deaths.

"In an ideal world, the Court had hoped its findings in relation to these eight deaths would have been available, and therefore contributed to the Independent Forestry Safety Review, and also the Government's review of health and safety in general. But due to the delays occasioned by prosecution processes, this has not been possible," he said.

He said data showed New Zealand's's fatality rates were worse than in any advanced country and above the OEC average. Despite having fewer forestry workers, the death rate in New Zealand was four times that in both Australia and Canada.

He said in 2013 New Zealand had 10 deaths in the industry. That dropped to just one in 2014 and three in 2015, with another four so far in 2016.

"It is of concern that there is this rash of deaths this year, especially after all the publicity and education in the sector. Clearly there is still a lot of do if New Zealand is to reduce its workplace forestry deaths on a permanent basis."

However he said the industry was now a far safer place to work than it was before the eight men's deaths.

"The primary driver in highlighting the lack of safety in the forestry industry and the need for accountability and urgent safety reforms has been the CTU and, in particular, Helen Kelly," he said.

He said through Ms Kelly's actions a number of private prosecutions had resulted when MBIE had decided not to prosecute. Almost all had been successful, he said.

Ms Kelly died of cancer last month.

Coroner Bain also acknowledged the work done by the industry and the Government as well as the parents of one of the eight men, Robert Epapara, in particular his stepfather, Rotorua's Wiremu Edmonds. He said they had "made it their mission in life to speak out and highlight the concerns with a huge number of speaking engagements around the country".

He said families would not have to go through the heartbreaking process of losing a loved one to a preventable death.

"However, as the 2016 deaths show, there needs to be constant vigilance in the sector."

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