There will be safety risks as the forestry industry opens up again after two months without much work, the head of the Forest Owners’ Association is warning.

While deemed non-essential up till now, forestry will be allowed to operate when the country moves to level 3 next week.

Forest Owners’ Association president Phil Taylor told Morning Report the industry was pleased and relieved that work could resume.

“It’s been a long time coming. Some of our contractors have been out of work for 60 days or on reduced production for 60 days because of course we got an effective shutdown when the Chinese economy locked up months before our lockdown.

“So it’s been a long time our people have been out of work.”

New Zealand is China’s largest soft wood log exporter and now that China is over the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic it is showing a strong demand for logs.

“And so the cessation of supply over the last month has resulted in a supply-demand balance increasingly in favour of New Zealand logs which is positive,” Taylor said

However, there would be a temptation, he said, to cut corners on social distancing and health and safety and the risk would need to be managed very carefully.

“The last thing the forest industry wants is to see us heading back to level 4 as a result of not following the protocols.

“So I certainly encourage any forestry managers or forestry contractors listening to really focus on the need to make sure the protocols the forestry industry has developed under the leadership of the Forest Industry Safety Council are all strictly adhered to. That is absolutely critically important.”

By and large, harvesting and logging contractors work in isolation because the industry had become so mechanised, meaning physical distancing was relatively straightforward for most of activities.

One of the biggest risks was in the significant distances work gangs needed to travel to reach isolated locations and some guidelines had been developed around those.

More vehicles might need to be used or work hours changed which could be costly for contractors.

“But at the moment this is not about cost. This is about the safety and wellbeing of our people and the ability of the New Zealand forest industry to contribute to the New Zealand economy,” Taylor said.

Every day without revenue has an impact, especially on small businesses, and the delay in moving to alert level 3 is actually the loss of five working days, not two, Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope said.

“It’s good news that people are able to go into their businesses and start to prepare for what business they may be able to do under alert level 3 and make sure that they can do it safely because that’s incredibly important,” Hope told Morning Report.

Businesses were looking at their health and safety plans, which they had been reviewing for the move to alert level 3. They were ensuring they had adequate personal protective equipment for their staff and working with their industry organisations.

Hope said businesses knew about the enormous cost for the country so far and did not want to lose the gains that had been made because of a poor approach to safety when work resumed.

“If people don’t feel safe they simply won’t come to work which is why it’s important these plans are put in place and to ensure businesses can get some kind of momentum back into

what has been a very damaged economy.”

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff said the CTU had supported the go hard and go early approach and while every day was a business day it was also a good day for health if the country kept the Covid-19 track right.

“It would be a worry too if our health trends went the other way. That would be bad or even worse for business.

“So we’ve always said that we need to get on top of the health issues first and foremost because ultimately the economy depends on people’s health being right … we don’t want to squander all the good work that’s been done.

“It’s a balancing act and not everyone’s happy – some people think we’re going too fast, some too slow – we think it’s about right.”

Wagstaff said there had been a good approach during the lockdown by employers and workers in essential services to ensure safety.

“One of the features of the last four weeks has been the buy-in from everybody about this coronavirus, how dangerous it is, how we have to keep safe and we’ve had tremendous buy-in.

“Everyone going back to work has bought the mindset, has understood it and so we need to make sure we can keep up the momentum in the workplace.”

He said a priority for the CTU was high-risk immuno-compromised people faced with returning to work under alert level 3. During the lockdown these people who worked in essential services had been paid and the CTU wanted that extended to other industries.

This article was originally published on RNZ and re-published with permission.

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