The Government is ruling out relaxing drug testing practices in the least-dangerous forestry jobs - despite a labour shortage in the sector.
Silviculture companies struggled to find enough planters last year, posing a threat to the Government's goal of planting one billion trees across the country by 2028.
The Forest Industry Contractors Association estimates nationally 30 to 40 per cent of intended plantings did not happen last year due to workforce limitations.
The regions with the highest number of forestry labourers are the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Gisborne and Northland.
Documents released to NZME under the Official Information Act reveal relaxing requirements for "those working on a flat field planting seedlings where no machinery was involved" was an option put to Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in an aide-memoire written by WorkSafe staff in late August.
However, WorkSafe's forestry engagement leader Grant Duffy told the minister the industry -"required by law to manage work risks" - was best placed to respond to concerns about drug testing.
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The independent Forest Owners' Association code of practice requires forestry companies to test for drugs and alcohol but they do not have to under New Zealand law.
Most companies do pre-employment testing and random testing.
"Our experience is that the typical response to positive drug test results is dismissal," the memoire said.
"Those in the industry tend to view those not adopting these policies as outsiders, higher risk, and undermining the industry's reputation and social licence to operate."
WorkSafe staff wrote some tree planting businesses were "considered less rigorous in their drug-free policies".
"This is generally not supported by the broader forestry industry who view silviculture as a gateway to the industry and therefore important in establishing culture."
The document said "international evidence on drug detection levels' correlation with impairment is inconclusive" and the industry was "awaiting clarity around the possible legalisation of cannabis and the work risks".
Staff wrote drug testing had "always been an attractive target for the forestry companies as it is seen as responding to real risk".
"It also maintains a focus on worker behaviour and responsibility, rather than system or employer factors of responsibility in impairment."
The memoire said some industry members were concerned about widespread drug testing unintentionally "pushing workers towards more harmful substances that are harder to test for, such as synthetics or P".
Staff also wrote, "the industry reports that attracting workers is a challenge".
"While drug testing is unquestionably a barrier to some, it seems likely that other factors such as pay, working hours and conditions ... and safety reputation are as, or more, potent".
The document said forestry workplaces had made "significant" safety improvements in the past five years but "remain high risk", particularly for those harvesting.
"While planting may be considered less risky, workers undertaking that task are still likely to be exposed to the hazards of working in the forest.
"These may include terrain, obstacles, equipment and machinery, weather, remoteness, travelling to and from work (both public roads and within the forest), isolated work and inconsistent or poor quality and levels of supervision, training and support."
Duffy recommended "extensive engagement using a strong evidence base" before any expectations or standards were relaxed.
As of late last month, Duffy told NZME there had been no "extensive engagement" taking place and WorkSafe had "no desire" to relax expectations.
Forest Industry Contractors Association chief executive Prue Younger told NZME the shortage of planters this season was expected to be as big as last year's, if not bigger, and all regions were finding it hard to get enough employees.
However, she did not want to see drug testing standards relaxed, after "all the hard work around drug testing, culture building around mitigating risk in the workplace".
She said reducing drug testing would lessen struggles to fill planting vacancies but that was not the industry's "preferred strategy".
"We want workers who are competent and capable and do not risk others around them."
She said forestry contractors' staff were "people who enjoy the outdoors, are generally fit and skilled and seeking a career pathway".
"The public are not aware of the opportunities, which has been an issue for the sector. Our own messaging has not been effective in attraction and associated with that is the reward and retention issues but last year we spent a significant amount of time on generating a Workforce Action Plan which is to be launched soon."
Minister for Workplace Relations Iain Lees-Galloway said drug testing was not the only way to assess if someone is fit for work.
"Workers also have a responsibility to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and must take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others. This includes turning up to work in a fit state to work, free from impairment."
MP for Bay of Plenty and National Party forestry spokesman Todd Muller said he supported forestry businesses testing workers.
"People who put themselves forward for employment have to be impairment free."
He recognised some forestry workers have "lower-skilled jobs on flat land and no access to machinery".
"But I think you need to start as you mean to continue."
He said forestry was "part of the underpinning of one of New Zealand's most successful exports".
He said the forestry, agriculture and horticulture industries were all facing labour shortages but "should be appealing" for anyone who "wants to start and get a pretty solid job but more critically on a ladder which is part of a successful sector".
Muller said part of the problem was that high school students were not getting enough encouragement to enter those sectors in their final school years.
Feedback from employers in last year's Forestry Labour Requirements Survey report said, "There is good money to be made with basically no starting qualifications" and "The living wage should be paid as a minimum to all forestry workers".
Other business owners said, "[I am] thinking about advertising in Canada for seasonal workers" and "It is extremely difficult to find permanent long-term employees who can be reliable, pass a drug test and be willing to work for their money".
Employers can make a case under the skilled migrants category residents visas to employ forestry workers from overseas, including silviculture staff, according to Immigration New Zealand.
Prue Younger said to her knowledge, the economic effects of coronavirus had not reduced the number of tree plantings planned this season.
Forestry employers' feedback
• Forestry businesses said the main reasons for labour shortages were employment conditions (pay rates, hours worked, locations and physical nature of work) and the inability to attract and retain new entrants. The number of experienced staff leaving the industry was also a major concern.
• In 2018, silviculture contractors reported planting 44,800 hectares of exotic species and 10,000ha of natives including 1700ha of mānuka.
• Planters were the permanent role in greatest demand in the forestry sector.
Source: 2019 Forestry Labour Requirements Survey