By JO-MARIE BROWN
By noon each day, thousands of New Zealand forestry workers have each scaled more than 50 pine trees and dragged ladders, harnesses and metre-long pruning shears through dense gorse and blackberry bush.
But instead of putting their feet up and taking it easy, many eat on the run while they go in search of a different kind of relaxation.
A recent survey on cannabis use in the forestry industry showed 77 per cent of silvicultural workers, who plant, prune and thin trees, had smoked marijuana in the previous year.
Furthermore, the Canterbury University forestry student who conducted the survey found that 27 per cent had used the drug at work.
The figures come as no surprise to those in the industry.
One former forestry worker, who does not want to be named, said many workers ate their lunch in five minutes and spent the rest of their break searching for the drug in forestry plots.
"Pruners and planters come across cannabis all the time because they know where it's more likely to grow," he said. "And if they find it, they use it because it's free. For a lot of them it gives them an incentive to go to work because the money isn't that great."
The Murupara man, who worked in logging and milling around the central North Island for 12 years, said forestry workers smoking marijuana would rather be sacked than give up the habit.
Many of his friends still worked in the industry and began growing and using cannabis when they were unemployed. Now they had returned to work, the drug was returning with them.
"People know there's a shortage of forestry workers. If they're going to sack 75 per cent of the industry, who's going to fill those spots? Until those odds turn around, the workers aren't going to be too worried about getting fired."
In some rural communities, forestry companies admit they are hard pressed to find a drug-free labour market.
Carter Holt Harvey's remanufacturing group manager, Rob Van Rossen, said young males with low academic qualifications tended to do the physically demanding silvicultural work.
"We're dealing with a labour pool who pretty much live day to day. Habitual drug use is a fact of life with silvicultural groups. It's just part of the scene," Mr Van Rossen said. "If you picked another industry which employed people from that group, I wouldn't be surprised if cannabis was an issue for them too."
Fletcher Challenge Forests' Jeff Weber, who chairs the health and safety committee of the New Zealand Forest Industries Council, said companies discovered that cannabis was being widely used while trying to improve workplace safety records in recent years.
Many companies administered pre-employment drug tests and employees caught stoned at work were often sacked.
But the emphasis was now on educating the country's 35,000 forestry workers on the dangers of drugs in the workplace and offering rehabilitation to those affected, said Mr Weber.
A substance abuse training package was recently designed for forestry companies by the National Distribution Union's Paul Blair, who believed safety at the workplace was paramount.
"We were not taking any moral or ethical stance during this project," said Mr Blair.
"We were just looking at the problem from a safety aspect. When you're working with heavy machinery in dangerous operations you've got to have a clear head and your reaction times need to be spot on."
But the former forestry worker from Murupara believed safety concerns were unlikely to sway those workers who used cannabis.
Forestry work was hard, physical and monotonous, "so smoking dope relieves the boredom and makes it more tolerable."
By JO-MARIE BROWN