Niko Brooking-Hodgson was 24 when he was killed by a flying shackle during forestry operations near Napier. Photo: Supplied

A coroner has called for urgency in the long-overdue job of writing proper health and safety regulations for the forestry sector – rules that might have saved the life of a young Tairāwhiti worker. But her recommendations come amid a log price crisis that underscores the brutal economics that help make this industry so lethal for workers, writes Rebecca Macfie.

Niko Brooking-Hodgson (Ngāti Porou) died a violent death on a steep and remote commercial forestry block in the winter of 2016.

He was killed by a 9kg D-shackle attached to a wire haulage rope, which was being winched in by a hauler out of sight 300m away. The shackle became snagged on the forest floor and then, under enormous tension, broke free. It became a loaded gun, and Brooking-Hodgson was in its line of fire.

The 24-year old father of one, premier rugby player and skilled worker suffered unsurvivable head and chest injuries, according to Coroner Donna Llewell’s findings on his death, released Monday morning.

Brooking-Hodgson died in the arms of his foreman 40 minutes after he was struck. He was the second worker killed in the same Pan Pac forest, working for the same contractor, D G Glenn, within five months. WorkSafe failed to prosecute in either case.

Even in death, it was deemed necessary to question Brooking-Hodgson’s mana by checking that he was not stoned or drunk at the time. But no – toxicology analysis proved that there was neither drugs nor alcohol in his body.

Coroner Donna Llewell’s inquest into Brooking-Hodgson’s death took place over two days in Gisborne in July. For his family, the hearing was a milestone in their five-year struggle for answers and accountability for the avoidable death of their son.

The hearing also served as a rallying point for other families whose sons, daughters and fathers have been killed in the forestry supply chain, with many picketing outside the hearing on the second day. In the Tairāwhiti area alone, where 44% of forestry workers are Māori, seven have died since the overhaul of health and safety legislation in 2015. One was Brooking-Hodgson’s cousin Piri Bartlett, who was killed exactly a year after him; both young men were from the small East Coast community of Te Araroa. Across the country, more than 50 workers have been killed in that time.

Although Llewell explicitly excluded from the inquest any criticism of the WorkSafe investigation into Brooking-Hodgson’s death, or its decision not to prosecute, her report leaves ajar the possibility of a private prosecution. Although the scope for private prosecutions under the Health and Safety at Work Act is extremely limited, the fact that additional evidence relating to Brooking-Hodgson’s death was heard at the inquest widens the opportunity for his parents, Richard Brooking and Luana Hodgson, to mount their own law suit.

Brooking told Newsroom he had not yet consulted his legal advisors, but his first step after receiving the coroner’s findings would be to ask WorkSafe to look again at its investigation, which he has always maintained was slow to get underway, inadequate and missed key factors.

“WorkSafe’s prosecution rates are just pathetic. We don’t stand alone here. There are a hell of a lot of other families let down by this system…I’m not stopping. We will find an avenue to get justice for our son.”

Niko’s father Richard Brooking

Evidence was heard at the inquest that the use of a straw line – a lightweight guide rope used to control haulage lines and help keep them clear of obstructions – could have saved Brooking-Hodgson’s life. Adding a straw line to the setup would have added only about five or ten minutes to the crew’s work. Coroner Llewell refrained from concluding that Brooking-Hodgson would be alive now if a straw line had been used, but she has recommended that they be mandatory in similar situations, and that proper training standards be developed.

She found there was inadequate two-way communication between the hauler driver, who was in control of the rope and shackle, and Brooking-Hodgson and his co-workers on the forest floor, who were most at risk of death or serious injury. In the absence of clear communication, tension should not have been kept on, or further applied, to the rope, she said.

At the time of his death, Brooking-Hodgson and the crew were engaged in line retrieval – bringing in ropes and equipment in order to shift to a new area for logging. The coroner found that although this task involves unique risks to workers’ lives – particularly because it requires them to be in contact with the haulage rope – there is no training, accreditation or mandatory rules governing it (although a “best practice” guide was developed after Brooking-Hodgson’s death).

Despite promises made after a major inquiry into the industry’s appalling health and safety record in 2014 , and reinforced in a group inquest into eight forestry deaths by another coroner, Wallace Bain in 2016, there has still been no comprehensive overhaul of the statutory rulebook, the Approved Code of Practice.  Llewell said “urgent priority” must be given to the development of the regulatory framework for forestry.

But even if these long-overdue standards are now developed for the industry, the question remains whether they will serve as an adequate counter-weight to the brutal economics of a log trade that helps keep workers like Niko Brooking-Hodgson at risk.

As  Llewell was circulating her draft decision last month, dozens of forestry crews around Tairāwhiti were facing long layoffs over the summer as a result of a drop in commodity log prices and soaring shipping costs.

Daniel Herries’ crew of eight workers has been logging for two years on a block near Tolaga Bay, under contract to forest management company PF Olson. Six weeks ago he was given notice to stop work, and the crew finished up late last week.

He has a $2 million tree falling machine arriving in January. His decision to invest in the machine is part of a wider push in the industry towards mechanisation to reduce the amount of work done with chainsaws.

Earlier in the year, when log prices were at record highs, the conversation with forest owners and managers was “all about safety and machinery to make it safer,” he says. “Now it’s just, ‘How cheap can you do the job for’. It’s one or the other – you want safety, but that comes at a price… When the chips are down they say ‘stop’, or ‘do it as cheap as you can’.”

He’s trying to other find work for his men, “but it’s pretty much a closed shop until March or April at the earliest” when the industry is predicting log prices will come back up.

“It’s shit really. It’s taken quite a while to build up the skill level of the guys within the crew.” They may get work in other sectors that need labour, but that raises the risk that their experience and skill will be lost to the industry, Herries says.

Ma Parata, chief executive of Kuru Contracting, says two of his logging crews have been put off recently, with no work to come back to in January, while another two are operating on reduced production and will be forced to take an extended break over Christmas. Kuru has also invested heavily in mechanised logging, including laying out $7 million in new kit in September.

Kuru also has forestry roading and cartage contracts, and most of that work is also grinding to a halt. All up, Parata says 25 to 30 workers and their families are affected.

He says it’s the most severe slow-down he has experienced in eight years running the company. Without a mill in the region servicing the domestic timber market, the Tairāwhiti region is enormously exposed to the Chinese log market.

“Our company will survive this, we’ve been in it for 24 years,” says Parata. But forest owners benefit from cut throat competition between contractors, and he has advocated – without success – for standardised rates. “The first thing that people sacrifice is health and safety…because all your other costs like insurance and diesel are fixed.”

Another contractor Newsroom spoke to has had to stand down a third of his workers, with the remainder on reduced production. “What can be a bit frustrating from a contractor’s point of view is that for some of [the forest owners], they have come off the back off four years of some of the best prices and highest returns they have had in a long time…To me termination [of contracts] is a bit short sighted. They’ve been shoveling money away for the last three or four years and not a lot of that gets passed on to contractors.”

Indeed, analysis by FIRST Union researcher Edward Millar, drawing on data from Statistics NZ’s Annual Enterprise Survey, suggests forestry investors have been making annual after-tax profits per worker of between $233,000 and nearly $400,000 since 2018.

Philip Hope, chief executive of the Eastland Wood Council (EWC), which represents large forest owners and managers in the region, estimates that 30-40 percent of logging crews have been stood down or put on an extended Christmas break. “What it fundamentally comes back to is it’s not economic to harvest at the moment. Big forestry companies are continuing to do it because they just see this as a blip. For smaller woodlot owners and investment syndicates, they have a very different perspective and we have no input into what they decide.”

Because of a glut of logs on the Chinese wharves and upheaval in that country’s construction industry – where New Zealand logs end up as single-use formwork – prices have fallen back from record highs of up to $US180 a cubic metre to around $US120, says EWC chairman Ian Brown. At the same time, Covid-related shipping snarl-ups have seen the cost of getting the logs to China treble, including the cost of demurrage when vessels are queued up offshore waiting to load or unload.

Brown says Tairāwhiti always gets hit the hardest in a log downturn because the cost of harvesting is higher than elsewhere, thanks to steep and erodible terrain, and poor infrastructure. “Consequently, people here switch off faster than, say, the Central North Island because of that cost difference.”

It’s easy enough for forest owners to preserve their investment – they can just leave the trees in the ground, and call up the contractors and workers to get back on the job when prices improve. But as Daniel Herries puts it: “It’s just pretty rude. They want everyone in the forestry industry to be safe and have all this expensive machinery to make it safe. That’s good, but they just kick you to the kerb when it suits.”

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