Cruelly cut downby Rebecca Macfie
After 10 fatalities last year and 54 in the past decade, the forestry sector is under acute pressure to prove it can put worker safety ahead of profit.
This article was first published March 26, 2014.
Lincoln Kidd was out of bed, as usual, at 4.30am on December 19, 2013, and out the door by 5. He stopped on his way to work to buy a couple of chicken wraps and corned beef and egg sandwiches to fuel him through what promised to be a normal 12-hour day. He was on the job at 5.30.
Within an hour he was dead, crushed by a tree felled by his boss. His skull was shattered and his spine broken.
In that sudden and brutal moment of his early-morning death, Lesley Kidd fears her son became just another statistic, just another dead worker in an industry that kills so many – the 10th out of 10 to die last year, the sector’s annus horribilis.
She wants him known instead as Lincoln Kidd, her third-born child – a strong and wiry 20-year-old who was forever on the go, who loved hunting with his friend and co-worker Raymond Pakau, and who had kayaked just a few days earlier with his good mate, Tom Horne, from Te Horo to Kapiti Island and back. A young man who loved his girlfriend, Jess Hearfield, his dog, Moose, and his older siblings, James and Lillian, and who had learnt to be a man at the elbow of his devoted father, Craig.
Lincoln would have been 21 the day before Anzac Day; he and Jess were hoping soon to buy a house together. He hadn’t excelled academically (he’d often bunk school to go and buy parts for his car). Instead, he loved to be outside working – building outdoor furniture for the family, tinkering with machines, helping his father and Uncle Byne on jobs around their properties, chopping firewood with his chainsaw.
He left school at 16 and was doing the work he wanted to do – logging. He thrived on the physicality of the job and on the planning required in felling a tree safely and successfully. He once burnt through four cans of petrol in meticulously bringing down an enormous 2m-diameter Norfolk pine. A photo of him atop its vast stump is among many mementos clustered above the mantelpiece of the Kidds’ Levin home.
He loved coming home dirty and satisfied with a big day. He’d wave a sweaty armpit at his mother’s nose and say, “Smell that!” Often he’d be in bed by 8.30, knackered after a day in the forest.
The night before he died, he came in ravenous, devouring half a packet of biscuits before hoovering up his tea with Lesley and Craig, then heading around to Jess’s house and hoeing into her meal, too.
He and Lesley often talked about the dangers of the logging industry. Lesley would say, “Keep yourself safe. Don’t do anything you feel is unsafe.” She recalls his reply: “He’d say, ‘I’m not stupid.’”
And he wasn’t, confirms his former employer. After he left school, Lincoln worked for forestry contractor Murray Spiers for four and a half years. “He was no idiot,” says Spiers. “He was a competent feller. A good, honest, old-school worker. We need more like him.”
Spiers was a small operator who didn’t always have a steady flow of work, and in October last year Lincoln left to work for Foxton contractor Paul Burr, who promised a more regular income and the prospect of training towards industry qualifications.
The crew consisted only of him, Pakau and Burr. The days were typically long, and Lincoln often worked Saturdays because Pakau did, and he didn’t want his colleague working alone.
They were harvesting trees on land owned by a Maori trust. Lincoln had commented to his parents that it was a “crap block” with spindly, twisted trees that had not been well-tended. Access roads were poor, although the land was mostly flat.
The block was close to the home of one of Lincoln’s friends, Ryan Mitchell. On the morning of December 19, Ryan saw the police and ambulance arrive at the site, and knowing Lincoln was working there, he went to find out what had happened. He immediately made contact with Lincoln’s close friend Brandon Boswell.
Brandon – who had known Lincoln since they were both three-year-olds at kindergarten – rushed straight to the Kidds’ home. He felt he must let Lesley and Craig know before the police got there.
Lesley was in the kitchen when she saw Brandon pull up outside the house, and went to the front door to greet him. She thought he had come to see Lincoln. Instead, the distraught young man simply uttered her name. As soon as he spoke, she says, “I knew, I just knew.” Stricken yet disbelieving, she begged with her son’s friend to tell her that it wasn’t true. The police arrived soon after.
It was a Thursday morning. Lesley and Craig Kidd were unable to see their son until late on the Friday night. An autopsy was ordered, against their wishes.
The circumstances of Lincoln’s death remain under investigation by WorkSafe New Zealand, but some facts are known. There were no drugs or alcohol in his body. The tree that came down and killed him was felled by Burr, using a mechanical feller-buncher. The autopsy showed Lincoln died with “comminuted facture of skull with extensive underlying brain damage. Spinal fracture.” Death would have been instantaneous, and he is unlikely to have seen it coming as he was working with his chainsaw to de-limb an already-fallen tree.
Burr told the Listener he was cleared by WorkSafe to continue operations a day and a half after Lincoln’s death and his crew has since completed harvesting the block. He has moved to another site, and another worker has been employed in Lincoln’s place.
GRIM ROLL CALL
Whatever the precise circumstances of Lincoln Kidd’s death in the forest, there is much that is wearily and tragically familiar. Like many others killed in New Zealand’s most dangerous sector, he died a sudden and violent death in a job he enjoyed and was good at; like many others, he worked long hours and negotiated daily hazards in return for a modest wage; like others, he is survived by a bewildered and bereft family who want the industry he worked and died in to change.
Their names march grimly across the page, a mute narrative of the forestry sector’s gravest failure – its inability to keep its workers safe and see them home to their families at the end of the day. Eramiha Pairama, 19; John Sanderson, 40; Robert Thompson, 43; Robert Ruri-Epapara, 23; Adam Olssen, 23; Mark Rogan, 45; Charles Finlay, 45; David Beamsley, 63; Michael Langford, 28: along with Lincoln Kidd, these men are the industry’s death toll of 2013. Already in 2014 they have been joined by William Bryant, 53, who was killed in a Marlborough forest in January.
Much remains unknown about why these and other men died. In the case of five killed in recent times, details are under wraps pending a joint coroner’s hearing in May. Others, like Lincoln Kidd, remain under investigation by WorkSafe.
In the odd case, details emerge if an employer is prosecuted for failing to fulfil its duties under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. For instance, Warkworth company Complete Logging was fined $60,000 and ordered to pay $75,000 in reparations for the March 2013 death of Robert Ruri-Epapara, who was killed by a tree felled by his foreman. Complete Logging was under contract to Carter Holt Harvey to log a very steep site with a thick and tangled understorey of blackberry that made visibility difficult; Ruri-Epapara and his colleagues had no radio-telephones or other means of communication.
Prosecutions, however, are rare – only 20 have been taken since 2009, despite 28 deaths in that time and hundreds of serious accidents.
Judging by investigations into eight fatal forestry accidents in 2011 and 2012 – the reports of which have been made available to the Listener under the Official Information Act – the deceased worker is at times cast as the author of his own misfortune. In the case of Ken Callow, struck dead by a rotten tree in October 2011, the Department of Labour concluded coolly: “Mr Callow was the architect of his own demise.” He had “scarfed” and back-cut the tree – the first steps towards felling a tree – and then moved to another tree, which he intended to fell to drive the rotten one over. Instead, the 53m rotten spar came down and killed him. Callow worked for a small nine-employee Gisborne contractor, Blackstump Logging, which was contracted to Malaysian-owned Hikurangi Forest Farms.
HARD WORK, BAD LUCK
In a good many cases, investigators conclude that the cause of death was simple rotten luck. For instance, Phillip McHardy, a Balclutha logger, was killed towards the end of the southern winter of 2011 by a tree that blew over in the wind.
He had 22 years’ experience in the industry and was working for a small contractor who had gone into business only a couple of years earlier. He was the most experienced of the crew and was highly respected by his workmates – and his boss – for his competence.
Karina McHardy says her husband’s crew members were paid by the volume of wood they took out of the block.
Phillip McHardy took pride in his work, but Karina says he wasn’t particularly happy with his present employer and he planned to leave once they finished the block they were on.
At 10.43am on August 31, 2011, he sent a text to Karina: “Getting windy here.” At about 1.30pm, while he was de-limbing a tree he had just felled – the second-to-last in the area he was working in – the remaining tree blew down, causing traumatic and lethal crush injuries to his skull and multiple bone fractures.
Perhaps, because he was in a relatively sheltered spot, he hadn’t noticed how much stronger the wind had got; perhaps, as a hard worker, he was keen to get the last two trees down before knocking off for lunch. The coroner’s report on Phillips’ death contemplated both possibilities. Post-mortem testing showed no trace of drugs or alcohol that might otherwise have clouded his judgment.
Karina heard afterwards from people who farm miniature ponies close to the area Phillip was working that the wind had got so strong that afternoon that the ponies had to be brought under cover.
However the Department of Labour concluded there had been no breach of duty by Phillip’s employer or anyone else at the site, and it pursued no enforcement action. He was 45 when he died, the father of four children.
Charles Finlay died aged 45, too. Like Phillip McHardy, he’d been in the logging industry a long time – ever since he left school 27 years earlier – and had a stack of qualifications. Like Phillip McHardy and Lincoln Kidd, his days were long. His wife, Maryanne Butler-Finlay, says their alarm would go off at 2.30 am, and he’d be out the door of their Tokoroa home by 3.10 for the long drive to the site. He’d usually be on the job – operating a loader that stacked the harvested and trimmed logs onto trucks – by about 4am. He’d get home at about 6pm, eat his meal and head to bed early. He usually worked six days a week. There was little time in the day for his 20-year-old son or 10-year-old twin daughters, one of whom had a serious heart condition.
Maryanne recalls him coming home having worked through torrential rain or wind. He often commented that the production targets the crew had to meet were unrealistic. Sometimes he complained that the trucks didn’t turn up to cart out the logs, which added to the pressure. His employer, M & A Cross, was contracted to New Zealand’s largest forest management company, Canada-based multinational Hancock Forest Management. Maryanne doesn’t know who owned the block of forest they were working in, but most likely it was one of the North American forestry investment funds that Hancock primarily works for.
For all his seniority and years of experience, Charles was on $16 an hour when he died. It was not much more than his son, Charles Finlay Junior, was earning at his job at Burger King.
A few months before he died, he and Maryanne had decided he would quit the logging industry. She felt the long hours and pressure were turning him into an old man before her eyes. The plan was that he would stay home and take care of the children and she would go back to work in her field of web and graphic design. He died before they had time to put the plan into effect.
IT'S NOT THE DRUGS
Well over half of New Zealand’s plantation forest estate is certified by the Bonn-based Forest Stewardship Council to show they are managed to meet the “social, economic and ecological needs of present and future generations”. But it is hard to see how the industry can support any claim that it is meeting “social needs” when its death and injury toll is so high. According to data supplied by WorkSafe, the newly established health and safety agency, 54 forestry workers have been killed on the job since 2003, and 1977 have suffered serious harm.
According to the industry’s own Sector Action Plan 2010-2013, it has the country’s highest rate of fatal work-related injuries (although ACC cites the fishing industry as having a greater number of work-related injury claims). The number of forestry accidents resulting in serious harm was six times greater than all other sectors between 2002 and 2008. And the document shows that between 2006 and 2008, logging injuries got more severe, with the average number of days off work by the victim increasing from 10 to 16.
As the industry has struggled to confront its unsustainable toll, much effort has been focused on reducing the influence of drugs and alcohol in the workplace, with random testing introduced in late 2008. New Zealand Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) president Paul Nicholls says the rate of “non-negative” tests (indicating, from a urine sample, that a worker may be impaired) has fallen from 14% to between 4% and 7%.
Nicholls says the policy brought about an immediate drop in health and safety incidents, “but since then we have flatlined since about 2010, with a spike up in the number of fatalities in 2013”.
So, the men are less likely to be stoned in the forest, but they are still dying and being seriously maimed. Of nine Department of Labour investigation reports into logging industry deaths made available to the Listener under the Official Information Act, only one refers to a worker having tested positive for cannabis use.
And, although the NZFOA’s health and safety leader, Sheldon Drummond, expressed the view in a television interview last year that a “Kiwi culture” of risk-taking and rule-breaking is a cause of the industry’s high accident rate, the investigation reports indicate that many of those who die in the industry are extremely competent and experienced and trusted by their workmates.
So if the high casualty rate can’t be waved off as the consequence of drug-addled behaviour by macho risk-takers, what are the causes of the industry’s woeful record?
Increasingly, the focus is turning on the very structure of the sector and whether it is putting dangerous pressure on the contractors and workers at the bottom of the industry’s economic food chain.
Until the late 80s, the government’s New Zealand Forest Service owned the bulk of the country’s plantation forests, as well as directly employing the crews who harvested the trees. When the state forests were privatised, the industry became fragmented and multi-layered, with forest ownership becoming merely an investment category, separate from the specialist operational tasks of forest management and harvesting.
Fast-forward three decades to today, and ownership of New Zealand’s Pinus radiata plantations is scattered among up to 15,000 owners, including large foreign investment funds as well as thousands of small “mum and dad” investors and landowners with small private forestry blocks.
Day-to-day management of plantations is usually contracted out to myriad consultants and forest management companies, the largest of which are Hancock Forest Management, Timberlands and PF Olsen.
The forest management companies in turn contract out harvesting work to logging companies, most of which are small to medium-sized privately owned enterprises. It’s estimated there are about 400 such companies in New Zealand. Sometimes logging firms subcontract to other contractors. The only direct employment relationship in this chain of command is between the logging contractors and the crew members they employ.
Trees are felled by workers using either chainsaws or mechanised harvesters. Fallen trees on New Zealand’s predominantly steep plantation country are then retrieved by “breaker-outers” – men who hook heavy steel cables around the trees so that they can be pulled by a towering hauler machine up to a landing site or “skid”, usually at the top of a hill. The raw logs are then de-limbed using both chainsaws and mechanised processors that gobble along the length of the log and chop it into lengths. The trimmed logs are then loaded onto trucks for transport either to export wharves, from where they are shipped primarily to China, or to processing plants.
Crews usually comprise about 10 men, but are often smaller. Each crew works with machinery worth between $1.5 million and $3 million, which is the property of the logging contractor.
The jobs that pose the greatest risk to workers are tree felling and breaking out, causing almost 40% of fatalities.
Like many small to medium businesses, contractors often raise finance for their costly equipment by borrowing against their family homes. According to Forest Industry Contractors Association chief executive John Stulen, they are unable to borrow against the value of the contracts they have with forest management companies.
THE FINE PRINT
Stulen says logging contracts in New Zealand are short – rarely longer than three years and often shorter. But it typically takes about five years for a contractor to pay off the machinery needed to win the contract.
Although logging contracts are theoretically negotiated between two autonomous parties – a forest management company (on behalf of the forest owner) and a contractor – in reality the management company lays down the rules of engagement. “The average contract is whatever they want it to be,” says Stulen. “There’s huge risk [for the contractor]. The truth is that when you operate in this industry, you don’t worry about marketing or whatever. You worry about getting the wood off the hill and keeping the gear running and facing the weather as it changes.”
Stulen says advances in logging technology have delivered huge productivity gains over the past two decades, but forest owners and managers have pocketed a greater share of those wins than the contractors and employees. Indeed, Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg has calculated that workers’ wages as a share of industry profit has dropped from 70% in the late 1980s to 19.6% today.
According to one logging contractor who spoke to the Listener on condition of anonymity, the system of tendering logging work puts contractors under enormous pressure. Forest managers put harvesting work up for tender block by block, favouring bidders with newer equipment. The work is generally re-tendered within three years, but the contractor will often still have two years of debt on his equipment – “so the guy drops his pants. And that’s what’s keeping contracting rates down.”
Contractors also estimate their daily production levels when they submit their tender price, and those figures form the basis of their cash flow and financial management. But the rate of production can be unilaterally dialled down or up by the forest manager – potentially leaving the contractor either short on cash, if he has to cut production, or forced to work his crew for longer hours, if he has to lift production.
Similarly, says Stulen, if the contractor has a breakdown and loses production, the pressure goes on the whole crew to make up for lost time.
Forest managers keep a constant watch on the volume of logs being taken out of a block, and the contractor receives a call daily asking how many truckloads he expects to get out the following day.
Savvy contractors know how to manage these pressures, he says, but those who are less skilled sometimes rush to overproduce against their daily targets to improve cash flow, only to find that the elevated level of production is expected as the future norm by the manager on subsequent blocks.
“When a small contractor has a bad run, he can lose focus on the holistic part of his business,” says Stulen. “It doesn’t mean he’s a bad contractor, but the good ones will always keep the lines of communication open and be open about the fact they’ve had a bad run.”
But the industry is dominated by what he calls “persisters. They’re people who, having taken on a job, are going to do it. And what are you going to do when the manager comes to you and says, ‘We’ve got a boat coming in, can you work the next 14 days straight?’ If you’ve had a bad run, are you going to say no?”
Stulen doesn’t put it so bluntly, but it does not seem far-fetched to wonder whether, in an environment dominated by short-term and one-sided contracts and where production levels determine success or failure, attention to health and safety, internal team communication, rigorous safety systems and auditing may fall by the wayside in favour of a focus on simply getting the logs out.
He is also worried about the influence in the system of wood brokers, who sell harvested logs from private blocks purportedly at “the wharf gate” for shipping to export markets, but who are in reality organising the entire production chain, including the trucking firms and logging contractors, without bearing any of the legal responsibilities for health and safety that fall on the principal to the contract.
“We’ve been discussing the ethics of that,” he says – including putting pressure on WorkSafe to begin looking into the issue. He fears that if there is no accountability sheeted back to those who control the trade in woodlot logs the industry’s toll may become much worse.
A SOCIAL LICENCE
Peter Clark, chief executive of New Zealand-owned forest management company PF Olsen, resists the proposition that the economic structure of the industry and the short-term nature of logging contracts is putting undue pressure on contractors and workers. He acknowledges that contracts are usually from one to three years, but, he says, “they get rolled over. We do occasionally re-tender to test the market and allow new entrants to come in, but that is usually not successful these days because there is only a certain pool of good loggers out there and we want to keep the good ones. So mostly work is done on negotiated rates block by block to take account of all that capital [tied up in machinery] and productivity rates are [established] setting by setting, depending on soil type, terrain and haul distance.”
And he says although the principal to the contract has the ability to cut back or increase the production required of contractors, it’s rare for it to be dialled back these days. “Dial up is more common.”
Clark says the forest owners his company works for – of which there are hundreds, including large offshore investment funds – are keenly interested in health and safety. “They want a social licence to operate.”
As an example, he cites the director of one institutional forest investor that PF Olsen works for, who came to Murupara to attend the funeral of a worker killed in one of its forests. The worker was one of two killed last year in forests managed by PF Olsen.
NZFOA president Paul Nicholls, who is also chief executive of forest owner Rayonier, also rejects the suggestion that commercial pressure on contractors is a key factor in the industry’s intolerable health and safety performance. It’s up to contractors to manage their risks, he argues.
He says Rayonier has a vetting procedure to check that contractors have not tendered work on the basis of unrealistic pricing or production targets, and tends not to hire those who are “brand new”. “Rayonier wants a stable, quality workforce. We believe the best way to maintain production, safety and environmental standards is to have good operators that are profitable. Having churn makes that difficult.
“Having said that, if you are a small-forest owner and you only have one chance to maximise your return, your incentives are quite different. You are after the best price you can get, you are looking to minimise your expenditure and maximise your revenue in the short term.”
Both Nicholls and John Stulen point out that a disproportionate number of fatalities occur on smaller blocks, rather than the large blocks owned by big investment funds. Stulen says farm-forestry blocks account for only 17% of the log harvest, but last year accounted for 50% of the deaths. In the next decade, the volume of wood coming off small blocks is set to soar, as trees planted during the forestry-as-investment boom of the early 1990s reach maturity between 2012 and 2024.
Paul Nicholls bemoans the fact that no one gives the industry credit for its long-term improvement in safety data. In 2002, when the industry harvested 20 million cubic metres, it killed nine workers. Last year, when 10 were killed, the harvest was almost 28 million cubic metres.
In other words, proportional to the harvest, the body count is down.
But Nicholls knows as well as anyone in the industry that such defensive claims are futile, and that the sector is on notice to come up with genuine solutions. And after years of light-handed policing of the sector by the old Department of Labour, WorkSafe is on the industry’s case. A recent blitz of breaking-out operations by the agency resulted in 275 separate enforcement notices, including 23 sites ordered shut – a level of non-compliance that prompted the regulator to declare it “does not have confidence that safety is being effectively managed in New Zealand’s forests”.
Under considerable pressure of publicity that the Council of Trade Unions generated, the NZFOA, Forest Industry Contractors Association and Farm Forestry Association agreed early this year to fund an independent inquiry into health and safety. The three-person panel includes veteran labour lawyer Hazel Armstrong, an expert in health and safety law and practice, as well as business leader George Adams and health and safety consultant Mike Cosman.
The terms of reference of the group are broad and ambitious – to “identify the likely causes of, and contributing factors to, the industry’s high rate of serious injury and death, and recommend practical measures to improve safety”.
The CTU – which has taken the de-unionised forestry workforce and many of its bereaved family members under its wing – has already identified core issues it wants the panel to scrutinise. President Helen Kelly says the industry is pervaded with a view that “it’s the workers’ fault” when accidents happen. “There’s a mythology that these workers are all lazy and at the bottom of the employment heap. Yet these men who are dying are drug-free and good workers.”
She says the industry’s multi-layered contracting model makes “responsibility for health and safety diffuse, and decouples the impact of the pricing and contracting models from the health and safety outcomes”. Contractors face “continued downward pressure on prices” and often have little time for planning and preparation between signing a contract and beginning work on a block.
Aside from the prevailing low wages, many employees don’t have written contracts – an absence that she says is a canary in the mine for poor employment practice. Hours and conditions are unregulated, and in many cases workers are not supplied with wet weather and safety gear.
“Other jurisdictions regulate for all of these [minimum wages, hours, weather payments, driving, shelter, gear]. New Zealand must also,” she wrote in a note for the review panel. The industry’s Approved Code of Practice – finalised only 16 months ago – needs to be reformed to manage hazards such as working in the dark, hours of work, adverse weather, fatigue and poor site design, she argues.
Kelly believes the tendering model makes contracting firms vulnerable and deferential to the forest managers and owners, and unwilling to speak up about the issues facing the industry. “While you have these big finance companies owning forests for the return on investment, they face no penalties for killing anyone. Death and injury are part of the economic model that they have accommodated.”
It’s noteworthy that no forest owner or manager has ever been prosecuted as principal to the contract in relation to a logging accident. “[WorkSafe] has to look at the supply chain and take action against forest owners in my view,” says Kelly. “Hopefully under the new law [the Health and Safety Reform Bill] that will become easier.”
In the meantime, the CTU intends putting direct pressure on the investment funds that own the forests by bringing the sector’s health and safety failings to the attention of the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies the majority of New Zealand forests.
For his part, NZFOA boss Paul Nicholls says he is keeping an open mind while the panel does its work. However, he says he is “not opposed” to tighter regulation, “if we can demonstrate that is the solution”.
He wants the inquiry to learn from those contractors who have been logging safely for years, to find out what they are doing right.
“I have been in this industry 35 years and I know for a fact that we can reduce our injury rate. It should be that if there is a fatality it should be just so out of the ordinary. We have crews that haven’t had an accident since 2005. It is possible. You have to get the environment right and have the right people. So why can’t we reproduce that everywhere? That’s the question.”
Would he allow his own children to work in a logging gang? Lesley and Craig Kidd entrusted the forestry industry with their beloved boy, and it failed them miserably. Does the industry’s most senior representative have sufficient confidence in his sector to chance one of his own family?
Nicholl’s reply is quick and determined. “Yes I would. I have an 18-year-old and I think a well-managed crew is fine. You can control the risks.”
Tragically, the forestry sector has much work to do to prove him correct.
The age of the machine
One industry pioneer, sickened by the carnage, has taken a hands-off approach.
Nelson forestry contractor Dale Ewers knows better than most how unforgiving logging work is. Twenty-four years ago he felled a tree that came down on him, breaking five vertebrae. He’s reluctant to discuss the incident, saying only that he was an “absolute dumb shit”. He recovered, but still suffers from the injury.
Fourteen years ago a worker employed by his company, Moutere Logging, was less fortunate – he was paralysed for life when a tree fell on him and broke his back.
And last year, a worker employed by a logging firm owned by Ewers’ brother and subcontracted to Moutere Logging was killed in a Northland forest. John Sanderson, a tree feller, was found dead by his co-workers after they heard his chainsaw idling. The top of the tree he had been felling was tangled with another tree; as the target tree fell, it pulled the other with it.
The snagged tree broke off about four metres from the ground and fell down on Sanderson as he was moving up the retreat route he had previously cleared. The jagged end of the broken tree amputated his leg below the knee. He did not have his radio with him to call for help, and he bled to death.
Sanderson was an experienced feller, and was described in the Department of Labour investigation report as “a very safe worker”. The report concluded he had either failed to identify the hazard of the entangled tree or had failed to put in place appropriate controls to manage it.
Ewers flew to Northland from Nelson as soon as he received word of the accident. By the time he arrived late that night, the man’s body had been taken away, but Ewers vividly recalls “the smell of death” on the hill. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
No one was prosecuted, but the tragedy deepened Ewers’ commitment to mechanise progressively the most dangerous logging tasks.
At one of his Nelson logging sites, Green Hill, the first time any worker touches a log is when it has been trimmed and neatly stacked on the landing. Despite the steep terrain – overlooking the Motueka Valley – all felling is done mechanically by a grapple mounted on an excavator, which is in turn tethered by wire rope to a winch further up the hill to assist traction.
When Ewers took the Listener to the site on a hot summer day this year, crew member Matt Goodall was operating the machine. From inside the protective cocoon of the excavator’s steel cab, he directed the huge steel fist of the grapple to clutch each tree at the base.
A hydraulic saw attached to the grapple then sliced through trunk after trunk, with the grapple tossing each fallen tree to a chosen spot on the slope, from where they would later be hauled up onto the landing.
Within just a few minutes, Goodall had 15 mature trees down.
While mechanical felling has been used in the industry for some time on flat ground, what’s new is the use of the tethering system to enable it to be used on steep country. Ewers says he has used it to harvest trees on slopes of up to 45 degrees. He estimates only about 5% of logging sites are using the method, but is convinced it will become more widespread. A similar innovation, being developed by Nelson’s Trinder Engineers and Kelling Logging, has received funding to the tune of $3 million by the government’s Primary Growth Partnership.
Ewers has also replaced the task of manually breaking out – dangerous work in which men wrap heavy wire ropes around fallen logs so they can be hauled up to the landing – with a machine of his own invention. Ewers took the Listener to a site in the Wairoa Gorge near Nelson, where worker Tommo Tane was controlling the mechanised breaking-out work from the cab of the hauler at the top of a hill. Using a set of PlayStation-like controls, he directs a grapple carriage – like a giant mechanised claw – to pluck the felled logs that lie like pick-up-sticks on the hillside, and haul them to the landing.
Guided by GPS technology, he knows the exact whereabouts of the carriage as it moves up and down the hill. A camera mounted inside the carriage beams to a screen into his cab, allowing him to see the grapple fasten on to each log and draw it up to the landing.
Tane has worked on manual breaking out in the past and has lost workmates in breaking-out accidents. “This is the future,” he says of the machine he pilots.
Back at Green Hill, crew member Michael Oakly says if Ewers’ company was ever to return to manual breaking out, he’d leave. Out of his crew of eight, only three have not suffered an injury in the past from manual breaking-out work.
Ewers has invested millions of dollars in the technology. He says the forest management companies his company works for have been supportive, and want the safety and productivity benefits of the system.
After all, he says, “Why would any human being put another human being in harm’s way when they don’t need to?”
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