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Safeguard Magazine

Forestry—Growth in the forest

Is it time for the forest industry to lose its bad reputation for health and safety? JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM investigates.

In 2014 the Independent Forestry Safety Review Panel’s Final Report described an industry struggling to comply with basic health and safety requirements.

It told of destructive economic pressures that were undermining safety and creating entrenched blame cultures, of poor communication – both within the sector and between sector and government – and a lack of coordinated safety leadership.

The panel – health and safety doyens George Adams, Hazel Armstrong and Mike Cosman – called for comprehensive change in both practices and attitudes at every level, and set a tight timeframe for this to be achieved.

Three years down the track, the industry-and-government-funded Forest Industry Safety Council (FISC), set up in 2015 to act on the IFSR’s findings, has done some good work. Nine technical action groups (TAGs), with pan-industry representation, are working in key areas, while the SafeTree website gives forest crews access to a pool of user-friendly H&S information.

On paper it looks promising, but how are these strategies affecting those who work on the forestry frontline?


Among the 380 delegates – bush men, businessmen and boffins – at last month’s Forest Industry Safety Summit, there was a quiet sense of relief that the sector has been forced to rethink its approach, but at the same time a tinge of frustration that the negative industry image portrayed in the IFSR is proving hard to live down.

Not that anyone at the Summit was claiming the industry’s problems have been solved. Five deaths in 2016 and a serious injury rate that, after an initial rapid decline, is again trending upwards, are stark evidence that much remains to be done. But the fact that large numbers of contractors were there, mid-week, spending two days talking about safety, was in itself proof of a major attitude shift.

Jo-Ann Pugh, WorkSafe’s representative on FISC, acknowledges there are still problems to solve, but says inspectors are seeing big improvements overall, with forest crews now more conscious of safety issues, and less willing to work with risk-takers.

The statistics, too, are encouraging. In 2013 forestry had a higher severe injury rate than any other sector. Now – despite a 10.9% increase over the past year – it is trending well below agriculture and construction, and not far above manufacturing.

It’s no longer the sector with the highest rate of failed drug tests either. These days, according to one large testing company, its percentage of positive returns is on par with those for transport and the ports. Pre-employment testing is now widely used in forestry, and this, the company says, has brought a significant decline in positive results from random testing.


Further evidence that the industry’s management of health and safety is improving comes from a wide ranging forestry research project conducted by WorkSafe in 2016. One hundred sector representatives – owners, principals, contractors, frontline workers and trainers – were quizzed about their experiences and expectations of H&S. The findings, released to coincide with the Summit, are an endorsement of the regulator’s work with the sector.

The inspectorate, the research paper says, has been making its presence felt in the forests, offering education as well as enforcement – a combination that has helped drive both a “noticeable increase” in good practice, and a corresponding decline in risky behaviour. The paper speaks of “strong collaboration” between regulator and industry, noting that the two parties are in agreement about key health and safety issues and working towards the same general goals.

Not all the research’s findings are so favourable, however, with the interviewees identifying a number of worrying issues. The industry’s bad reputation for safety is said to be making recruitment difficult, resulting in an ageing workforce.

External training is described as low quality and difficult to access, with entry-level courses doing little to prepare trainees to work in a forest environment. Work-related health is said to be largely ignored in the industry, despite a significant level of underlying health issues among crew members.

And while the trend towards mechanised harvesting has generally improved safety, there are concerns that crews who cannot afford such equipment will be forced to work on the high risk sites where machines cannot go.


In response to the research, WorkSafe has announced three new forestry initiatives to target worker engagement and participation, small-scale forest operations, and work-related health.

The regulator has had a significant presence in the forest for much of the past three years, and this has produced good results. However the real test is still to come, as WorkSafe’s focus on forestry becomes less intense and the parties move back into business-as-usual mode. Only then will it become apparent whether the improvements to date reflect sustainable culture change, or just careful compliance motivated by the likelihood of an inspector’s visit.

Speaking at the Summit, Pugh noted that the injury graph for forestry had fallen dramatically during WorkSafe’s most intense period of activity, but shown a steady upwards movement since early 2015, when the number of site visits began to reduce.

“It shows industry still has a heavy reliance on the regulator to manage its risks, but we really want to transfer some of that reliance back to [industry] so the changes are sustained,” she told the conference.


This is where FISC’s involvement will be pivotal. Set up to provide leadership for industry, by industry, it is well placed to carry on what WorkSafe has begun, provided it can get buy-in from frontline workers.

Although the council is officially an industry body, not everyone on it has a forestry background. National safety director Fiona Ewing is a health and safety professional, and there is also representation from WorkSafe, ACC and FIRST Union, but the bulk of its members, and those of its operational advisory and technical advisory groups, come from the wider forestry sector.

“We try to mirror the makeup of the industry, with representation from forest owners, farm forestry, contractors, and independent workers,” Ewing says. “However we’re always looking for more input from frontline workers, because they’re the ones who do the work on a day-to-day basis.”

For most forest workers, engagement with FISC is likely to be by way of the SafeTree website (, which has an ever-expanding range of information and practical tools. Although the site carries no FISC branding it is the official portal for the council’s many initiatives, including professional certification programmes for contracting companies and individual workers.


Certification is not a new idea – some of the larger contracting companies have been using individual certification for high risk roles for more than a decade – but a nationwide programme, done well, might be the big step up that the industry has been looking for.

In a single package, certification offers professional standards to which organisations and individuals can aspire, proof of competency for those seeking business relationships with the industry, and, if widely adopted, an opportunity to raise the bar enough to ensure that so-called cowboy operators will have to develop skills or quit the business.

The contractor certification programme is not yet available. A scheme was piloted in December, and the results will be considered by FISC this month, with a view to getting the initiative up and running by the end of the year.

Full details of what will be involved have not yet been released, but Ewing says it will focus on ensuring companies not only have health and safety systems, but know how to use them effectively. The assessment standard will be flexible, she says, so it can be used to drive continuous improvement.


Individual certification for the industry’s most dangerous jobs – falling and breaking-out – is already on offer, FISC having picked up a model developed in 2000 by the then-forestry industry training organisation FITEC. Independent consultant Rob Prebble, a member of FISC’s operational advisory group (OAG), has been involved with the initiative from the start, and says certification was initially mooted because of concerns about the skills of some of the trained fallers.

“Once you’ve achieved a NZQA unit standard, it can’t be taken off you,” he says. “You’ve got it for life. Glen Mackie at FITEC proposed professional tree faller certification as a way to ensure that people were actually meeting and maintaining the required standards.”

With funding from ACC and the Department of Labour, Prebble, Mackie and a small group of tree falling specialists worked on the project for a year, until industry concerns about long-term costs forced it to be shelved.

That might have been the end of the story, had Nelson Forests Ltd (NFL) not suffered a spate of injuries among its experienced crew members in 2004. The company’s health and safety manager, Canadian Les Bak (also on the OAG) had heard about a new certification programme in British Columbia and, when he happened upon the abandoned FITEC initiative, was keen to revive it for his company.

By this time Mackie had moved on, but trainer assessors Brent Searle, Neil Thomas and Prebble resumed work on the project, focusing this time on both falling and breaking out.

The first assessments were done by NFL in 2006, and by 2007 every faller and break out worker in the company had been certified. Since then regular re-certification has kept skills honed, producing results that have exceeded even Bak’s expectations.

“We haven’t had a serious harm injury in falling since 2008, and in breaking out since 2009,” he says. “And an analysis we did after we completed the certification process found a 35% gain in productivity.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit, however, has been in the workers’ response to the process.

“They maintain their gear, they can plan and problem-solve high risk situations, and if you question any of our fallers, they know all the rules and what they mean in different situations,” Bak says. “They constantly want to learn and grow their skills and, because they’re proud of their professional certification, they make sure they meet the standards every day. They don’t want to let themselves down.”


It sounds almost too good to be true, but Bak cautions that certification is far from a quick fix. It’s not cheap, costing around $1500 per person per year, and there’s no room for shortcuts anywhere in the process.

“You can have all the paper, processes and procedures, but if the guys who are actually doing the work don’t value it, you’re wasting your time,” he told the Summit. “When we started the certification process we got five of our senior fallers and said “Look, we need to find a way to give guys the skills to fall safely. How do you do that every day?”

“We jotted down what they told us and ended up with a package, developed by the fallers, that we could take to other fallers and say ‘If you do these things every day you’re going to be safe.’

It is the NFL certification model that is now being used by FISC. The process was picked up by ACC in 2008 and promoted to other large companies, a number of which adopted it. Around a hundred of the 400 to 600 fallers in the country are now certified, but Bak is frustrated that the process has taken so long to gain traction.

“Why has a proven, effective competency programme for high risk tasks been so slow to move ahead?” he asks.

Prebble too is disappointed that progress has not been faster, and says the rise of technology within the industry has created a new problem for manual fallers that will make certification both more important and harder to maintain.

“People are spending less time doing the physical job and more time sitting in the seat of a machine,” he says. “But falling is physically and mentally demanding work, so you really need to be doing it regularly to maintain your fitness and skills.”

Widespread use of machinery also means that the type of work reserved for manual fallers is more difficult and potentially dangerous, making good skills essential.

“You can’t take fallers out of the situation for months and then suddenly say “There’s a nasty little block down there that needs to be fallen. Go and do it.”

“They need to keep their hands in, but if a contractor has them working in a block that could be done by machine, there’s potential for WorkSafe to turn up and say ‘You’re not taking all reasonably practical steps.’


At the Summit Robert Stubbs, director of a Gisborne contracting company and a member of the OAG, called an informal meeting of fallers, urging them to get more involved in the certification process and keep FISC informed about what they wanted from the process.

“One of my fallers just passed the certification a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “He’s the first one in the East Coast district to get it, and I’ll be pushing for the rest of my employees to work towards it too.

“However there’s been a little bit of feedback that it’s a bit too theory-intensive for the average faller, so we need to be hearing more from them so we can get it right.”

Prebble also is keen to get frontline workers more involved, to the point where it is them rather than contracting companies that drive the programme.

“It’s about ownership of those abilities and skills,” he says. “It is the individuals who have the skills, and getting recognition through certification should provide them with the motivation to maintain standards. The more we try to force it on them, the less successful it will be.”

Ewing, too, believes certification has potential to change the game for forest crews.

“We want to be seen as a professional industry and many parts of the industry do operate very professionally, but there is currently no real recognition for the guys who do the high skilled tasks,” she says. “We want them to be recognised as being at the top of the game as professional tree fallers or breaker-outs, just as people are recognised for being master plumbers or builders.

“They need to get real recognition for the skills they have.”

And then, in an intrinsically dangerous industry, safety will become a source of pride.


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