Forestry workers are 15 times more likely to be harmed at work than the average worker – but from what?
When I was 18 years old I joined the New Zealand Forest Service. Bright-eyed and bushy tailed I was sent into the bush to plant, prune and fell trees. Out of the pine plantation forests I was privileged to be dropped by helicopter into some of our country’s most pristine wilderness environments, the headwaters of the mighty Rangitikei river. I was living the dream counting plants and deer droppings and my wellbeing was at an all time high. It was 1980, carless days and carefree nights as I watched the stars unpolluted by lights and meteorites magically skid across the milky way.
Back in the methodically planted pinus radiata mazes I was informed that Forestry was the most dangerous occupation in New Zealand and one in every 643 of us would be felled and mortally wounded. Fast-forward 38 years and I am on a NZ Forestry speaking tour of Safe Start breakfasts, banging my drum that Health IS safety. Like pepper and salt, they are inextricably linked and again we are informed that Forestry workers are 15 times more likely to be harmed than the average Kiwi at work.
Fortunately, mechanisation is drastically reducing the risk of a traumatic death as machines, haulers, computers and a device aptly named the Falcon Claw are taking our loved ones out of harm’s way. It’s great to be part of the Safe Start breakfasts for 2018 and I am reminded that the logging divers, the bushmen and support staff are the salt of our earth. I can’t help but wonder though how many are in fact felled by salt, sugar and fat rather than a chainsaw. As we eat what we used to at age 18 our arteries are clogged like the ports that export our logs as the machines make us more sedentary.
A fortnight tour from Whangarei to Invercargill reunites me with many old faces from a previous life of tending trees. Now we are tending to the people. I have to admit I am surprised at how much salt is poured on one plate of sausages, bacon and eggs. Times are changing and one worker asked his mate if he wanted some eggs with his salt. I seriously wonder how many forestry workers are felled by type 2 diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnoea.
The stress and strain of modern living affect our judgment and the brain’s pre-frontal cortex at times shuts down like computer with a virus. Risk is increased as we make poor safety calls as a result of emotions like anger and frustration. It is estimated that 80 per cent of workplace injuries are caused by people being hungry, angry and fatigued. Once again health is safety and good mental health means fewer workplace accidents. I vividly remember a chainsaw kicking back on me because I came in too hot and fast on a hang up. The saw hit my helmet and sent it spinning. I was young and inexperienced but there are fatal accidents in people with decades of experience. I suspect judgment may be impaired by conditions such as sleep apnoea.
We are on our wellbeing tour in our retro ambulance in February, March and April testing, talking and filming around New Zealand. Having spent the past three years testing farmers it’s time to get back to my roots and get back into the forests I love. Sometimes in wellbeing it’s hard to see the wood from trees and it’s just about changing perspective.
Dr Tom Mulholland is an Emergency Department Doctor and GP with more than 25 years experience in New Zealand. He’s currently a man on a mission, tackling health missions around the world.