Most of the observations in the royal commission report into the Pike River disaster refer, of course, to a coal mine in which 29 men died. Yet the observations could as easily have been applied to the forestry industry. There, 28 men have died in accidents since 2008, including six so far this year.
Both sectors will always involve dangerous work, but it is apparent the peril has been exacerbated in recent years by a number of shortcomings. Reduced regulator oversight, lax manager attitudes, inexperience, and pressure to work in hazardous conditions have been seen in both mining and forestry. It is therefore important that health and safety improvements forced on mining since Pike River are also brought to forestry.
The sectors share characteristics that have paved the way for unsafe workplace cultures. Mining can be prone to pressures arising from over-promising and under-delivering of production. In forestry, there is a similar propensity for contractors to commit themselves to impossible targets. In both, this tendency led to dangerous practices, not the least being worker fatigue through long hours on the job. These were not checked, partly because diminished state resourcing has reduced the number of inspectors. In the case of forestry, the outcome has been a spike in fatal accidents.
This has occurred despite some efforts to halt the trend. The industry has, for example, developed a new code of practice for health and safety, and introduced random drug testing and on-site training. So far, however, the death toll indicates the risks of the job are still not being managed effectively.
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More needs to be done, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has made a start by putting the industry on notice that its commitment to safety must improve. This month, it began a crackdown, with inspectors due to visit all 330 contracting operations to check compliance with safety codes.
The death toll has also led to calls for a government inquiry. Tellingly, even the Forest Owners Association has agreed that this is an appropriate response. But any inquiry will have to proceed without the strong plus of government leadership. The Labour Minister, Simon Bridges, has said that forestry's problems are well known, and the Government's new health and safety regime should be given time to bed in.
This is a response to the Pike River commission's observation that health and safety in the workplace had not been considered seriously enough by employers, workers and successive governments. It recommended a new Crown agency focused solely on this.
The upshot is WorkSafe NZ, a regulator tasked with achieving a 10 per cent reduction in the rate of fatal work-related injuries by the end of 2016. Its work will encompass education, as well as enforcement. For forestry, not the least of its tasks will be convincing a non-unionised workforce that it should not feel pressured to work in hazardous conditions.
The Government's reluctance to lead an inquiry may be justified on the basis of the parallels between mining and forestry. That implies it believes the forestry fatalities are not the result of unique industry characteristics and problems. Rather, there has been a systemic failure in health and safety which will be remedied in all sectors by its Working Safer regime.
Much rides on this being the correct conclusion. A huge volume of wood will come on stream in five years from trees planted on the sort of steep country that invites accidents. Making the industry a safer place by then is, indeed, a matter of life and death.