The tale of Michael Stevens – killed 27 May 2008 – hit by falling tree

Written By: - Date published: 6:11 pm, July 4th, 2013 - 19 comments
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I have collected up the available documentation on the men killed in the forest since 2008. I am going to try, using the documents I have, to tell their story – one at a time. I haven’t been able to contact all the families of these men and hope if any of them read this, they are not surprised or upset to see the details set out like this.

The documents are public but have never been pulled together in one place. If we have an inquiry – they will provide some of the clues to what is going on. I have OIA’d the last 50 serious harm injuries as well – but the MBIE won’t provide them. MBIE have not collated and looked at these deaths as a set – I think collectively they paint an important picture.

This week the Forest Owners said they would welcome an independent inquiry into the industry and we hope to meet with them to talk about this soon, but really we need Mr Bridges to get over the line on this and agree to support it. I am hoping telling these stories will help.

Michael Stevens was killed in Ngaumu Forest in the Wairarapa on 27 May 2008. He was 40 years old. He was employed by Montana Logging working in a Juken NZ forest. He was struck by a falling tree. The foremen became concerned when he had not heard any cutting from the area Michael was working in for a while and went to look. He was found dead.

Michael had only started work 7 months before the accident and had been to polytech for a training course before hand. He was basically a trainee and was working towards his first tree felling unit standard on the week prior to the accident. Montana records indicated that it had clear faith in his ability to work competently, safely and productively on his own with limited or no supervision. He was cutting a tree which had a large wind thrown tree leaning heavily against it creating a large amount of pressure on the standing tree, thus causing the tree to fall quicker after the back cut was completed and causing the wind thrown tree to spring forward in the direction the falling tree would have taken. Other wind thrown trees nearby made it difficult to establish an uphill escape route. The falling tree hit other trees on the ground and slid sideways and backwards striking him in the area of his predetermined escape route.

The inspector found Michael’s decision to cut a particular dangerous tree was the critical factor in his death – he blamed him. “In this case DOL believe that there has been a breach of Section 19, in that an employee’s inactions have been the major contributing factor into the cause of the accident” “In this case there are no clear recommendations that can be made to dramatically improve processes or procedures to ensure this does not occur again”.

He wrote in the report that Michael was a worker “who could be trusted, who had initiative, a great work ethic and immense passion for tree felling”.

The inquiry report has no details of an employment agreement, nor record the hours of work that week , nor the weather conditions at the time. It does record that Michael tested negative to drugs. Five contributing hazards and four contributing causes were identified by the inspector but none included the weather or fatigue. The inspector found Montana had a comprehensive management system for this logging operation – the Coroner concluded it did not.

Coroner Garry Evans carried out a full inquiry into Michaels death. He found the DOL had been wrong to attribute health and safety duties to Michael that actually sat with his employer. After hearing from an expert witness he concluded Michael was cutting a tree beyond his experience and in fact lacked the training to even recognise that he was out of his depth. He found the health and safety plan was a generic one and insufficient for the specific site, and that Michael had only two months tree felling experience and was doing work usually done by the most experienced fellers.

Coroner Garry Evans recorded that it “cannot reasonably be said that … an employee’s inactions have been the major contributing factor into the cause of the accident”. An expert witness found that other contributing factors to the poor decision made by Michael included weather conditions (raining, wet, poor light, cold), time of day and having had only one day of rest (Sunday) before starting the next weeks work, maybe some personal problems but this was questioned, and not enough experience. The expert said that with the wet conditions the likelihood of the tree sliding backward or sideways into the escape route was very high.

No prosecution was taken in relation to this death. It is unclear if the Coroners recommendations were adopted by the Department – there is no legal requirement under the Coroners Act for any party to formally respond.

19 comments on “The tale of Michael Stevens – killed 27 May 2008 – hit by falling tree ”

  1. vto 1

    Oh well at least we know the risks in working in a forest now

    • Chris 1.1

      Obviously you have no understanding of the industry or the job at hand. Until you’ve been out there & do what we do I think you should keep your opinions to yourself! We’ve personally buried 8 people in 17 years, you have no idea of the risks. Id like to take you to work in our industry for a month & then see what you think. Signed, 24 years tree felling.

      • vto 1.1.1

        Well actually I have worked in forestry fulla and now work in a similarly dangerous sector. And in case you hadn’t noticed, my point was in support of your position. It was trying to highlight the evilly flippant manner of this government when it comes to safety of workers. Witness also Pike River.

        And no, I wont keep my opinions to myself, no matter whether they are decent or useless.

  2. karol 2

    So who was the inspector appointed by, who did the initial inquiry? An employer representative? Sounds like it as the blame was put onto the employee, Michael.

    Surely it is absolutely essential that an independent inquiry be held into all the forestry deaths. The findings by the coroner, that is totally opposed to the initial inquiry report blaming the health & safety provisions by the employer, indicates that the “inspector” cannot be trusted.

    • Chris 2.1

      Cheers karol, awesome post. You obviously know what the industry is about. Us who do the job, respect your opinion. From a veteran cutter.

      • karol 2.1.1

        Erm. Chris, I hope you aren’t confusing me with the writer of the above, “awesome post”: ie Helen Kelly. She clearly knows way more about the forestry industry than I do. I’m just going by her post.

        And clearly you do know about the industry, Chris. Hope they can get better and safer conditions for all forestry workers.

  3. Suitably Clueless 3

    Thanks for this Helen, I know a few people in the industry, and I hope I am never in the position of this man’s family and friends.

  4. Chris 4

    Classic example of poor cutover management by the foreman, contractor & all staff members on site. Anyone with any experience should’ve never have put that man out there with such little experience & time on the felling face. Clearly he was out of his league & didn’t know it. Those that had experience in the crew, i.e foreman & contractor therefore should be liable & prosecuted for this man’s death. I would like to know if he was a registered tree feller, under training in the company that he was employed & if he was, for the experience he had, the company (forest owner), therefore should be just as liable as the foreman & contractor. Its just a classic example of negligence towards the worker.

  5. Sable 5

    Yes and crappy Keys made it worse with his 90 day law. Now anyone new to a job has to put up with unsafe working conditions or face the sack.

  6. Hazel 6

    Helen, I agree with you that Gary Evans recommendations should be formally responded to by DOL. I wonder if the Ombudsman would be interested? Or perhaps a member of a Select Committee could ask the DOL to respond. The DOL ought to learn from the Coroner in cases like this.

  7. Wendy 7

    Keep highlighting these issues and telling these stories Helen. Crucial public work in these increasingly unsafe times. Completely unacceptable that Michael was blamed by the first ‘investigation’.

  8. fender 8

    Montana didn’t have the “comprehensive management system” that the first inspector believed them to have, is he a liar, corrupt or just incompetent, I wonder. This company allowed someone with only two months experience to attempt work he shouldn’t be expected to perform, especially without adequate supervision and guidance from an expert. Don’t mind betting that Michael wasn’t being paid as an expert, despite being expected to perform the tasks of one. He himself may have felt like he could tackle these tasks, but the company has an obligation to manage their less experienced workers until they have been fully trained in the hands-on complexities of tree felling.

    The Coroners Act needs more teeth if Montana don’t face prosecution for negligence I believe.

    Keep up the great work you are doing in this area Helen.

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