Today the District Court of Rotorua gave the CTU leave to take a private prosecution against the employer of forestry worker Charles Finlay for failing to take all practical steps to keep him safe. Charles got home at 6pm the night before he was killed and was up again the next morning for his 4am start. He was dead by 5.30am in the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the country on an unlit worksite. Charles, after 27 years in the bush was on $16 per hour.
He has an adorable family who I have got to know. His twin 10 year olds call me Aunty Helen Kelly as if both were my first names. They clearly adored their dad and he sounded fun. His 21 year old boy has a wicked sense of humour and I think he probably takes after his dad. It is unclear why Worksafe has not taken this prosecution but my view is that the attitude has been that regardless of the inadequacy of the safety systems on the site (no lighting, long hours, no one stopped when they were unsure where Charles was on this dark site) the modus operandi of the regulator is to blame the worker. The reports into these deaths are full of excuses for what are fundamentally safety systems that will never keep these workers safe.
We are now seeking leave for 3 other prosecutions. I noted today that out of 20 agriculture deaths last year there were only two prosecutions. It simply isn’t right. Supermarket workers that stack shelves at night pay our way. Four prosecutions will cost us a fortune. Luckily we have lawyers like Nigel Hampton QC, assisted by Simon Meikle – instructing solicitor and a new quite brilliant discovery and the wonderful union lawyer Peter Cranney doing lots of the ground work – and giving lots of their time. We had a street collection for Workers Memorial Day – something we will repeat – we need, and have set up a fund for these families. We are also supporting the Pike Families contest the dismissal of the charges against Whittal. We collected $4,000 on our street collection and we will continue to build this fund (get in touch if you can help!). So building on the good will of our brilliant lawyers we are forging on.
Today when the decision was announced two other lawyers got in touch and offered to help. The goodwill warms the cockles! But today we finalised our submission on the new Health and Safety Bill in front of Parliament. Submissions were due tonight and our sub is longer than most we have written! I did the case studies we are including to back up our case for change. In doing so I finally read the MBIE report into the death of John Sanderson – killed in an NZ forest at the beginning of last year. One of the notorious ten dead last year including Charles. But today as Charles widow and one of our other mums desperately sent me text messages for updates about the court, I finally got the time to pull out the report into the death of this man. I have met his partner of ten years. A gentle, sad, lovely women who feels a strong sense of injustice about the loss of the love of her life. Someone we have let down, by coming to this late, not having her contact details, not getting this report (MBIE denied us the report for a year, only in January this year did I finally get it from the Coroner) and now hoping to represent John at the Coroner hearing. I doubt his partner has even got a copy of the report. I spoke to her last weekend and she did not even know about the coroners hearing. I will send it Monday but in the meantime, let me tell you about the death of a man that was loved.
John Sanderson was killed while felling a tree on 17 January 2013 in Northland. He had just returned to the bush after a number of years break in December 2012. He had been assessed at that point as competent and held a number of forestry qualifications in tree felling. He had barley worked 20 days back in the bush when he was killed.
In the MBIE report into the accident a dispute regarding the safety on the site is recorded. A worker that had been at the site but left in the process of the investigation claimed the practises on the site were unsafe. It is recorded the worker claimed there was no proper communication on the site and the workers were under production pressure. He asserted that the company was not telling the truth in regards to the tree felling processes on the site. This matter is unresolved in the investigation report and not investigated further.
There were four companies involved in this accident – Taumata Plantations was the investment company that owned the trees. Hancocks Forest Management was engaged to manage the harvesting of the trees. Moutere logging was engaged by Hancocks to do the work and Moutere logging subcontracted it to Cable Harvesting Limited. It appears CHL was a subsidiary of MLL formed especially to fell this block and used Mouteres health and safety systems. John worked for CHL.
Hancocks identified the dangers of the slope – it was heavy with undergrowth, it was extremely steep and slippery underfoot and had a number of other hazards.
Mr Sanderson’s partner was interviewed as part of the investigation but her views are not included in the report. In her interview, she said that on this job “for the first time ever” John had come home and spoken about the dangerous conditions. She quoted him as saying “Fuck Rose, its fucking dangerous”. He said it was difficult even walking up to the site it was so steep. The danger on the site had subsequently been confirmed to the CTU by workers that replaced John. Rose asked him why he did not say anything to the company but he has said he could not as it was “his job”. It was his partners view that John did not have the correct gear, that there had been no provision for him to easily carry a radio on his body and that he was low paid with substandard gear that he had provided himself. She thought he should have had studded boots and that this area of forest should not have been harvested. She is strongly of the view that having cut a tree he slipped underneath it. Others on the site subsequently described how on this site you had to “cut and run” to avoid being hurt. A tree fell on John and amputated his leg. He shed his safety gear and tried to get down the hill to his RT. He bled to death half way there. Had his radio been attached to his body with a mesh vest he may have been saved.
There were no elected health and safety representatives on this worksite. According to media reports MLL employs up to 100 staff but this subsidiary was small and did not have representatives. It is unclear if there are elected representatives in any other part of this company and even if there was an entitlement of these workers to have a representative system, without industrial support they would be unlikely to “ask” for it. This resulted in a number of elements of the “paper” and “audit based” safety systems recorded in the MBIE report being ineffective. A representative system that worked on this site may have resolved any of these issues: the disputed views on the accident itself, the equipment and site concerns, the communication, and the need to John to have called for support when he faced a difficult cutting situation.
Update: thanks for all the offers of support – here is a link.