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NZ forestry industry must drive workplace culture change

NZ forestry industry must drive workplace culture change for safety reforms to be effective

Between 2008 and 2013, there were 967 serious incidents and 28 fatalities in the New Zealand forestry industry, with 10 of those fatalities taking place in 2013 alone. The safety rate for the forestry sector is also far worse than in any other sector in NZ – with the overall injury rate nearly six times worse than it is any other industry (1).

As the forestry sector moves forward with further growth and expansion (export earnings are set to rise to NZ$5bn by the 2016-17 financial year from NZ$4.3bn in 2012-13 (2)) global consultants DuPont Sustainable Solutions are warning that something must be done to counter the alarming safety track record.

Graeme Iggo, safety advisor for DuPont Sustainable Solutions in New Zealand, says that the first step in the right direction is the New Zealand Government introducing workplace safety reforms, and the Independent Forestry Safety Review (3), which is currently underway. But he warns that unless there is a robust strategy to drive change in workplace culture in the industry, then the laws won’t be effective.

“The ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude is prevalent throughout our work environments and the forestry sector is no exception,” says Iggo.

“As a societal norm, that culture is incredibly detrimental to the way our workforce operates. Whilst we certainly applaud the NZ government and the forestry sector for stepping up to try and make changes, the reality is that unless we educate and enforce culture change in the industry, then the new laws won't be effective.”

Iggo, a DuPont safety advisor based in Christchurch, has been employed by DuPont for nearly 40 years and during that time has worked in countries including Kenya, USA and Australia. He says for a relatively progressive country New Zealand should have a far better safety track record than it does.

“New Zealand is a poor performer when it comes to safety in the workplace right across the board. At least 75 people are killed at work a year and 1 in every 10 workers is harmed in some way (4). That number is nearly twice as high as it is in Australia (5) and the reason for that is the culture embedded in our workforce.”

“Unfortunately, it’s taken some major tragedies for the government to realise our safety record should be a lot better than it is.”

On 13 March this year the NZ Government announced it was committed to improving health and safety by introducing The Health and Safety Reform Bill (6).

The Bill, which is set to be in place by December, represents the most significant law reform in this area in more than 20 years and will play a major role in helping NZ meet its target of reducing its workplace death toll by 25 percent by 2025. (7)

The Independent Forestry Safety Review, which closed for public submissions earlier this month, is aiming to identify the factors influencing the health and safety of the forestry workplace and is looking into factors such as leadership, machinery use and processes.

“There are some contributing factors that have hindered the way the forestry industry operates, including the fact that it is one of the highest risk industries in New Zealand, which is largely due to the number of variables at play in forestry, like terrain, weather patterns and wind in particular, and also the ad hoc way a tree will fall if not properly controlled. But the reality is that there is no justification for such high rates of preventable incidents and fatalities, and something needs to be done urgently to change that.

“Employers should be 100% committed to providing a safe workplace and making sure their employees are fully informed, educated and equipped to ensure their personal safety, and we believe this new bill should also specifically target company directors and managers to ensure they’re accountable and that penalties for non-compliance are fair.

“But what really needs addressing, and what is currently missing in this reform, is driving cultural change. Employees should be supporting one another to operate as safely as possible, through things such as vigilance, shared learnings and good communication, especially in a changeable environment like the forest where awareness and proactivity is key. The “she’ll be right mate” attitude is dated and no longer acceptable.

“So how do we drive cultural change across forestry and other sectors? We’re on the right track with a review because the first thing to do is identify where processes are failing and where costs are being cut. But where other reviews often fail is when it comes to implementing change. It’s all fair and well identifying the problem, but unless tangible change is made to rectify that problem and workers are educated, trained, communicated to, and cultural change takes place, then we’re only setting ourselves up for a short-term solution.

“The key is setting best practice processes in place and encouraging workers to not only meet those regulations, but understand how and why they work and encouraging them to be the champion of enforcing them. We want them to openly and proudly value their own and their workmates safety and on a daily basis be doing everything in their power to ensure they keep safe, are meeting regulations and are communicating about any arising issues or concerns.

“At the end of the day it’s these people who are at the coal-face. If we can’t drive change in safety awareness and behavior through to the people on the ground, then this reform will ultimately fail.”



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