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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Forestry—Learning from mistakes

Two Canadian forest safety experts had a simple message for their New Zealand counterparts – don’t do what we did. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

In 2009 the British Columbia Forest Safety Council had a well established safety prequalification programme for contractors, a robust certification process for fallers – and an industry keen to terminate its association with both the council and its activities.

“They felt the council was doing something to them rather than for them,” BCFSC chief executive Rob Moonen says ruefully.

“When we sat down and talked with the contractors, we found the audits we were using were too compliance-based. What they wanted was something more focused on performance, because in the end, ensuring a faller knows how to fall a tree is more important than having a safe falling policy.”

Moonen and his colleague Peter Sprout, who runs the council’s certified faller programme, came to the Forest Industry Safety Summit in Rotorua in March to tell the New Zealand industry what to avoid when setting up its own professional certification programmes.

The story is complicated, but the key message simple: that effective change will only occur when industry – at all levels – is leading the process.

British Columbia’s forest industry has many parallels with New Zealand’s. In the 1990s its large forest companies were broken up, and falling crews who had previously been employees became independent contractors overnight. Many struggled with the challenges of running their own businesses, and in 2005 the industry hit the headlines after a disturbingly high annual death toll of 34.

A taskforce was set up to investigate, producing a list of recommendations that closely mirror those of New Zealand’s Independent Forest Safety Review, and the BCFSC was created to implement them.

Things got off to a promising start. Contractor safety prequalification became compulsory for anyone wishing to tender for work, and fallers were quick to sign up for professional certification.

When certification was complete, by late 2006, the industry went two years without killing a faller.

“We thought we had it figured out,” recalls Sprout, himself a faller for 35 years. “We thought certification was the answer – and then bam! In 2008 we killed six.”

Shock and disappointment quickly became anger, and the industry turned on its own safety council, with one of the largest contracting companies voting to terminate its membership.

A series of meetings, in town halls across the province, established communication lines that Sprout says should have been there from the start. The meetings were often stormy, as contractors vented their frustrations with the audit system; but the council listened, and changed.

These days audits focus on critical risks rather than paperwork, the council’s agenda is determined by a cluster of smaller safety groups that are industry-owned and driven, a package of BCFSC initiatives provides support for forest crews on their own terms, and fatalities are down by 75%.

For Sprout, however, the biggest achievement has been the shift in the core values of fallers.

“You need to be a pretty strong person to take on that sort of job, so fallers are generally very opinionated,” he says. “We were never going to get lasting change in the industry without changing their core beliefs. But since we set up a faller technical advisory committee to tell us what to do, there’s been a dramatic shift in buy-in.

“Their culture has shifted because they realise that people don’t have to die, and we get a lot of value out of it because the frontline is where the answers are.”


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