Lessons for change-makers

What a great experience it’s been, overseeing FISC/Safetree’s growth from a recommendation in the 2014 Independent Forestry Safety Review (IFSR) to an established organisation with a focused work programme agreed by key stakeholders.

The key issue that we’ve identified is that we’re not dealing with a safety problem, it’s a work problem across the supply chain. So it’s really important to understand your sector and the business model it operates, as this introduces factors that amplify risks on site.

Let’s look at what works, according to FISC’s experience.


Talk to the workers

The people who are doing the work are the real experts and we have to tap into that expertise. The best way to do this is face-to-face, which can be a challenge given the remote, rural nature of forestry and the restrictions of the recent pandemic.

In one of my first visits to a New Zealand forestry site, the foreman had a hazard register with over 900 hazards. I told him I was really interested in what could kill me or land me in hospital, and he immediately told me about five high risk work areas: tree felling, breaking out, driving (to and from work and on forest roads), working around machines on the skid site, and maintenance on big equipment.

When I got back to the office and checked the industry data, he was spot on. That visit contributed to our work on critical risks.

Similarly, we were debating unit standard-based versus risk-based for first aid training when an experienced forestry worker piped up: “There’s nothing worse than standing on the side of the hill when your mate is badly hurt and knowing the first aid training you’ve had [and the equipment available to you] is no fucking use to help him.” Risk-based first aid training has now been adopted by large parts of the sector.

The people doing the work know the risks they are exposed to. We should be engaging with them to understand the best ways to deal with these risks. For this to work there has to be mutual trust so people feel safe to speak up about any issues (or innovations!) and know they’ll be listened to and that things can change.


Focus on the work being done

There’s been a growing understanding that the best way to improve safety is not by adding more rules and compliance. It’s by focusing on things that set crews up for success – like improving worker wellbeing, adopting more collaborative working, and managers working to better understand what really happens on site.

More ‘safety work’ is not what we need. Instead we should focus on creating ‘better work’ – where all parts of the supply chain collaborate, and those making the decisions and paying the bills live up to their moral and legal obligations to make sure their workers aren’t harmed in the process.

A Better Work project has been initiated by FISC and the initial concept is being shared more widely with the sector.


Build skills/capability

Building leadership and communication skills with foremen and crews, along with giving them some specific tools to use, has improved safety outcomes. It has led to better communication on site, improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and produced happier people.

Also, getting the sector to really think about risks has been beneficial. Rather than just focusing on the risk assessment process, we helped them understand how the risks they are exposed to can affect them, their crew mates and families.


Focus on wellbeing

Starting conversations with wellbeing and health topics is perceived as caring rather than compliance. Safetree’s Toroawhi have played an important role in spreading this. When they visit sites, they kick off by talking about their own wellbeing and work experiences, which creates trust and gets people talking about their own situations.

As a result, all sorts of things can come to the surface – often things crew bosses and managers had no idea about. Revealing these issues is important, because if you don’t know about them you can’t deal with them.

It’s also been good to see people become more accepting that what happens at home can affect us at work. Bosses might not be able to help someone with these personal problems, but they do need to be aware of them, because if someone’s distracted, stressed or upset it impacts their ability to work safely.


Work with others

As well as working with key stakeholders within the sector, I’ve also worked alongside the other sector leadership organisations, including the Business Leaders’ H&S Forum (BLHSF), the Engagement team at WorkSafe, and with other recipients of ACC grants.

This broader collaboration is vital to success.


Telling stories

Get real people to tell their success stories – check out the Safetree website.


What doesn’t work?

More compliance, assurance and ‘safety work’ doesn’t work. H&S is often seen as a tainted brand, hence the focus on ‘better work’ – how do we make this work better for you, rather than conduct an audit to tell you that ‘you’re doing it wrong again’, which is often the view of those being audited.

Communication and the language you use is key. You have to think about how you can reach your different audiences and stakeholders. We’ve tried workshops, websites, newsletters, email and phone calls. The Toroawhi even hung out at petrol stations and dairies when they couldn’t get to sites, so they were available for people to talk to.

There’s no doubt about it, face-to-face is the preferred means of communicating with people.


Frustration: funding

Call me naïve, but I had assumed that the funding put forward by ACC and WorkSafe when FISC was established was readily available. Yet one of my first jobs was to develop a business case to access this funding.

This pattern has continued over the years, with considerable effort put into securing funding. ACC and WorkSafe have been very supportive of our work and understand the frustrations associated with securing funding. That’s why they are currently looking at sustainable funding models for sector leadership groups.


Frustration: holding others to account

The IFSR contained recommendations for the sector and others in the H&S system. When FISC was established our attention was on work we could deliver. Holding others to account – such as government departments and larger players in the supply chain – wasn’t a focus area.

This was highlighted in a review of FISC in 2018 and is still an area that needs attention. Collaborating with the other sector leadership bodies and the BLHSF is a way to carry this work forward, as we all have similar issues to deal with.


Frustration: lack of focus on upstream duties

We continue to see compliance activities (audits, inspections, investigations) at work sites with no real consideration of upstream duties, and how earlier decisions by principals have affected the environment on site.

This leaves workers and contractors thinking they are solely responsible for site conditions, rather than being able to connect through the supply chain and question and collaborate on some of the decisions made around planning, funding, infrastructure, harvesting methodology, contractor capability and selection.

This perpetuates the power imbalance in the supply chain, with the people closest to the work often bearing the highest proportion of the risk, both personally and financially. A current project looking at contract agreements between principals and contractors is looking to address some of this imbalance, with a greater consideration of shared risk. While this will be of benefit, there also has to be mutual respect for all those working in the supply chain and a recognition of the skills they bring to make the work successful on a day-to-day basis.


Better work

Change isn’t easy. People often feel more in control with a strong compliance and assurance approach, doing what they’ve always done. Used in isolation, however, this won’t make the change we need to see to improve the lives of people at work.

Let’s use other approaches to make ‘better work’ for our people.

Fiona Ewing, CMIoD, CMNZISM, CMIOSH, was national safety director of FISC from October 2015 to May 2022.