Coroner wants urgent changes in forestry safety

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A coroner has called for urgency in the long-awaited work of drafting proper health and safety rules for the forestry sector – rules that could have saved the life of a young Tairāwhiti worker. But its recommendations come amid a log price crisis that underscores the brutal economy that is helping make the industry so deadly for workers, writes Rebecca Macfie.

Niko Brooking-Hodgson (Ngāti Porou) died a violent death on a steep and remote commercial forest block in the winter of 2016.

He was killed by a 9 kg D-shackle attached to a hauling cable, which was winched by a dumpster out of sight 300 m away. The shackle caught on the forest floor and then, under tremendous tension, came loose. It became a loaded gun and Brooking-Hodgson was in his sights.

The father of a 24-year-old, a leading rugby player and skilled worker, suffered insurmountable head and chest injuries, according to coroner Donna Llewell’s findings on his death, released Monday morning.

Brooking-Hodgson died in his foreman’s arms 40 minutes after being struck. He was the second worker killed in the same Pan Pac forest, working for the same contractor, DG Glenn, within five months. WorkSafe did not take legal action in either case.

Even in death, it was deemed necessary to question Brooking-Hodgson’s mana by verifying that he was not stoned or drunk at the time. But no – the toxicological analysis proved that there were no drugs or alcohol in his body.

Coroner Donna Llewell’s inquest into Brooking-Hodgson’s death took place over two days in Gisborne in July. For his family, the hearing was a milestone in their five-year struggle to secure answers and accountability for their son’s preventable death.

The hearing also served as a rallying point for other families whose sons, daughters and fathers were killed in the forestry supply chain, with plenty of picketing outside the hearing on the second day. In the region of Tairāwhiti alone, where 44% of forestry workers are Maori, seven have died since the revision of health and safety legislation in 2015. One was Brooking-Hodgson’s cousin, Piri Bartlett, who has was killed exactly one year after him; the two young men were from the small east coast community of Te Araroa. Across the country, more than 50 workers were killed during this period.

Although Llewell has explicitly excluded from the investigation any criticism of WorkSafe’s investigation into Brooking-Hodgson’s death, or its decision not to prosecute, his report leaves the possibility of a private prosecution open. While the scope of private prosecution under the Occupational Health and Safety Act is extremely limited, the fact that additional evidence regarding Brooking-Hodgson’s death was heard during the investigation widens the possibility for her parents, Richard Brooking and Luana Hodgson, to set up their own lawsuit.

Brooking told Newsroom he had yet to consult his legal advisers, but his first step after receiving the coroner’s findings would be to ask WorkSafe to reconsider his inquest, which he said was slow to start, inadequate and missed key factors.

“WorkSafe’s prosecution rates are just pathetic. We are not alone here. There are many other families abandoned by this system … I am not stopping. We will find a way to obtain justice for our son.

Niko’s father, Richard Brooking

Testimonies were heard during the investigation that the use of a straw line – a lightweight guide rope used to control tow lines and help keep them unobstructed – could have saved Brooking’s life -Hodgson. Adding a straw line to the facility would only have added about five or ten minutes to the team’s work. Coroner Llewell declined to conclude that Brooking-Hodgson would be alive now if a straw line had been used, but recommended that it be mandatory in similar situations and that appropriate training standards be developed.

She found that there was inadequate two-way communication between the truck driver, who controlled the rope and shackle, and Brooking-Hodgson and his colleagues on the forest floor, who were most at risk of death or serious injury. In the absence of clear communication, the tension should not have been maintained or applied more on the rope, she said.

At the time of his death, Brooking-Hodgson and the crew were engaged in line salvage – bringing ropes and equipment in order to move to a new logging area. The coroner found that although this task carries unique risks to the lives of workers – especially because it requires them to be in contact with the traction cable – there is no training, certification or mandatory rules governing it (although a “best practice” guide was developed after Brooking-Hodgson’s death).

Despite promises made after a major investigation into the industry’s appalling health and safety record in 2014, and reinforced in a group inquest into eight forest deaths by fellow coroner, Wallace Bain in 2016, he There has still not been a complete overhaul of the statutory regulations, the approved Code of Practice. Llewell said that “urgent priority” must be given to developing the regulatory framework for forestry.

But even though these long-awaited standards are now being developed for the industry, the question remains whether they will serve as a proper counterweight to the brutal economy of a log business that helps keep workers like Niko Brooking-Hodgson in. danger.

As Llewell circulated his draft decision last month, dozens of forestry crews around Tairāwhiti faced long layoffs over the summer due to falling prices for base logs and soaring shipping costs.

Daniel Herries’ team of eight workers has been operating a block near Tolaga Bay for two years, under contract with the forest management company PF Olson. Six weeks ago he received a work stoppage notice and the team finished last week.

He has a $ 2 million logging machine coming in January. His decision to invest in the machine is part of a larger industry push towards mechanization to reduce the amount of work done with chainsaws.

Earlier this year, when log prices were at record highs, the conversation with forest owners and managers was “about safety and the machinery to make it safer,” he says. “Now it’s just, ‘For what price can you get the job done for.’ It’s one or the other – you want security, but it comes at a price… When the tokens are low they say “stop”, or “do it as cheap as possible”.

He tries to find work for his men, “but it’s practically a closed shop until March or April at the earliest,” when the industry predicts that log prices will go up.

“This is really crap. It took a while to develop the skill level of the guys within the crew. They may find work in other industries that need manpower, but this increases the risk that their experience and skills will be lost to the industry, Herries says.

Ma Parata, managing director of Kuru Contracting, said two of its logging teams were recently sacked with no work to resume in January, while two others are operating on reduced production and will be forced to take extended breaks at Christmas. . Kuru has also invested heavily in mechanized logging, including installing a new $ 7 million kit in September.

Kuru also has logging road and trucking contracts, and most of that work is also halted. In total, Parata says 25 to 30 workers and their families are affected.

He says it is the most serious downturn he has experienced in eight years at the helm of the company. Without a sawmill in the region serving the domestic timber market, the Tairāwhiti region is extremely exposed to the Chinese log market.

“Our business will survive that, we’ve been there for 24 years,” says Parata. But forest owners benefit from fierce competition between contractors, and he argued – unsuccessfully – for standardized tariffs. “The first thing people sacrifice is health and safety … because all of your other costs like insurance and diesel are fixed.”

Another entrepreneur Newsroom spoke with had to lay off a third of its employees, with the rest having to cut production. “What can be a little frustrating from an entrepreneur’s point of view is that for some [the forest owners], they came out of four years of some of the best prices and highest returns they’ve had in a long time… For me, termination [of contracts] is a little short-sighted. They have wasted money in the last three or four years and not much of that money is passed on to entrepreneurs.

Indeed, analysis by FIRST Union researcher Edward Millar, drawing on data from Statistics NZ’s Annual Business Survey, suggests that forest investors made annual after-tax profits per worker of between 233,000 and nearly $ 400,000 since 2018.

Philip Hope, chief executive of the Eastland Wood Council (EWC), which represents the region’s large landowners and forest managers, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of logging crews have been dismissed or put on leave from Christmas extended. “It is basically saying that it is not economical to harvest at the moment. The big forestry companies continue to do this because they only see it as a failure. For the small woodlot owners and the investment unions, they have a very different perspective and we have no influence on what they decide.

Due to an overabundance of logs on Chinese docks and upheavals in that country’s construction industry – where New Zealand logs end up as single-use shuttering – prices have fallen from an all-time high of 180 US $ per cubic meter is about US $ 120, says EWC chairman Ian Brown. At the same time, Covid-related shipping increases have seen the cost of shipping logs to China triple, including the cost of demurrage when ships are queued offshore while waiting to load or to unload.

Brown says Tairāwhiti is always hit hardest during a log decline, as the cost of harvesting is higher than elsewhere, due to steep, erodable terrain and poor infrastructure. “As a result, people here are going extinct faster than, say, the central North Island because of this cost difference. “

It’s easy enough for forest owners to preserve their investment – they can just leave the trees in the ground and call on contractors and workers to get back to work when prices improve. But as Daniel Herries puts it, “It’s just rude enough. They want everyone in the forestry industry to be safe and have all of this expensive machinery to make it safe. It’s good, but they kick you on the sidewalk when it’s convenient for you.


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