Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Families call for new rules to prevent forest deaths

Unions' president says top five most dangerous industries share common traits.

Maryanne Butler-Finlay lost her husband Charles Finlay on July 19 last year in Tokoroa in a forestry accident. Photo / Marty Melville
Maryanne Butler-Finlay lost her husband Charles Finlay on July 19 last year in Tokoroa in a forestry accident. Photo / Marty Melville

The families of 11 forestry workers killed on the job last year will march on Parliament today to call for regulation in the industry to prevent more deaths.

The procession of the 100 grieving family members marks international Workers Memorial Day and will be led by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), which is raising money to bring private prosecutions over at least two of the deaths.

Last year 51 Kiwis were killed in workplace accidents across a range of industries including agriculture, construction and manufacturing.

CTU president Helen Kelly said forestry was six times more dangerous than any other industry but all of the five worst industries followed a theme.

"They're all primarily de-unionised, have long hours, have very dominant employer relationships and are largely contracted where the principals don't employ the workers."

Thee CTU set up a Workers Memorial Fund to help families affected by workplace deaths mount legal challenges.

WorkSafe NZ, the Government's workplace health and safety regulator, is responsible for prosecuting employers but if it doesn't families can pursue a private prosecution, though it is usually too costly.

Ms Kelly said the union was providing legal support to five families over eight forestry fatalities in the central North Island, at coronial inquests in Rotorua, including two where it has sought leave to prosecute.

Four of the eight inquests have been delayed because of pending criminal proceedings, including legal action taken by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment against a foreman over the death of 23-year-old Robert Epapara in March last year.

"Every single one of these deaths could have been avoided," Ms Kelly said.

The council would also use the fund to support three families who were seeking a review of the decision to drop charges against Peter Whittall, the former manager at Pike River Mine, where 29 workers died in an explosion in November 2010.

"Families ring me all the time completely unaware of their rights and missing out on their opportunity to have a say."

Ms Kelly said no one should die doing their job. She believed there was a "different threshold of acceptance around workplace deaths".

"I think there's a tolerance which has got to change and these families are as entitled to justice as anybody else."

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said WorkSafe NZ had a clear mandate to bring down the death and injury toll in the workplace by 25 per cent in 2020.

Since August last year WorkSafe NZ had taken 300 enforcement actions in the forestry industry, including shutting down 25 operations, and there were currently two active prosecutions, he said.

CTU president Helen Kelly said forestry was six times more dangerous than any other industry. Photo / Natalie Slade
CTU president Helen Kelly said forestry was six times more dangerous than any other industry. Photo / Natalie Slade

The organisation had recently completed visits to 32 forestry owners and principals around the country while the independent industry-led inquiry into forestry safety was also under way.

Mr Bridges said the Health and Safety Reform Bill, currently at select committee, would overhaul the law and extend the duty to keep workers safe beyond the traditional employer.

Widow wants her man's name cleared

Charles Finlay was not the kind of man to make silly mistakes.

The 45-year-old had 27 years of experience in the forestry industry, but on July 19 last year the father of three was killed by a falling tree in a workplace accident near Tokoroa.

Now his grieving wife, Maryanne Butler-Finlay, wants to take a private prosecution to prove her husband was not to blame for his death.

"He wasn't an idiot. He was really health and safety conscious. And after Charles there were five more people."

Mrs Butler-Finlay, who took the couple's 10-year-old twin daughters and their 21-year-old son, together with 30 extended family members, to Wellington for today's march, said it was important to clear her husband's name after WorkSafe NZ did not prosecute Mr Finlay's employer.

"We have to stand up because we know what our men are like and they know the industry and they wouldn't make silly mistakes.

"There is something seriously wrong going on in that industry. If there's so many of us that have been put in this position, then why is that?"

Mrs Butler-Finlay, who said her husband was earning just $16 an hour when he died, wanted regulation of training, wages and hours of work.

She said her family were speaking out and taking legal action for all families affected by workplace deaths.

"Charles has been gone nine months and two weeks and it's still very much like yesterday. The system is just cheating us, really, and it's not right."

Danger jobs
Five worst industries for workplace fatalities:
*Forestry
*Agriculture
*Construction
*Fishing
*Manufacturing

- NZ Herald

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