Jason Rawiri, 42, was a respected forestry worker who died after being struck by a tree near Gisborne minutes after his shift ended. Photo / Supplied
The grieving family of a forestry worker killed by a falling tree near Gisborne say it’s insulting that WorkSafe’s chairwoman blames poor access and a 2km trek “through dense bush” for not sending an inspector to the accident site.
“Excuses, they’re making bloody excuses,” the victim’s sister Bubba Baker told the Herald.
The family are also upset they weren’t notified that a blessing was arranged at the site by a contractor days after the October 14 accident, labelling it a “slap in the face” for grieving whānau.
WorkSafe is defending its response, saying none of its inspectors were available, and that it was not responsible for organising the blessing.
Sixteen members of Jason Rawiri’s family travelled to Gisborne last month after his Ngaruawahia tangi to conduct a karakia where he died.
However, they learned upon arrival that a blessing had already been held and the Ngatapa forestry site released by WorkSafe to contractors.
Under a sudden death protocol prepared by WorkSafe to ensure cultural beliefs and Maori traditions are observed following a fatality, whānau must be notified if a site karakia is planned and family members “given the opportunity to attend”.
East Coast forestry worker advocate Candice Gate said no such notification was provided and the family were “deeply upset” with the lack of communication.
“The site had already been blessed and released days prior, the tree involved was unidentifiable and already cleared, presumed loaded on a truck to be sold. They left the region unable to complete their tikanga.”
Gate said it was troubling that proper processes were still not in place despite the East Coast recording 13 forestry deaths in just 12 years.
Baker told the Herald Rawiri was the youngest of six children and “baby” of the family.
Whānau members wanted to perform the karakia “after burying our brother” to provide closure and observe tikanga.
Known as “Base”, the respected forestry worker had been loved and was deeply missed.
WorkSafe says it did not organise the blessing and was not notified prior to the ceremony occurring.
The Herald earlier revealed that WorkSafe was under fire for not sending an inspector to the accident site, instead relying on police to carry out a scene examination.
Correspondence obtained by the Herald shows Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood sought an explanation from WorkSafe chair Jennifer Kerr about the decision, saying workers in high-risk sectors like forestry “need to have confidence that protecting their health and safety is a priority”.
“Ensuring WorkSafe remains visible and engages actively with them, as well as the families of victims, is vital in this respect.”
Wood said he understood WorkSafe could not attend every serious workplace incident, but high-risk sectors and regions should be prioritised “to maintain public confidence”.
Kerr responded saying the number of forestry deaths and high rates of harm for Maori workers was “not acceptable and must change”.
She said WorkSafe’s operational decisions did not reflect a lack of concern about forestry harm. While the agency endeavoured to attend all scene examinations it did not always have the necessary operational resources.
Rawiri’s accident occurred not far from Gisborne, but “required responders to travel two kilometres through dense bush to access. At the time of the incident the nearest qualified WorkSafe investigator was in Napier”.
Police – who accessed the site by helicopter – had carried out the scene examination at WorkSafe’s request with the information reviewed by WorkSafe before the site was released.
Kerr said this was an “effective and pragmatic approach”. The alternative would have meant securing the scene overnight for WorkSafe staff, putting evidence at risk from bad weather and delaying the return of Rawiri’s body to his family.
She acknowledged that some people were “not comfortable with this course of action” and that the situation was less common with forestry accidents.
Asked how she felt about WorkSafe not attending the scene of her brother’s death, Baker said: “I’m not going to share it. It’s not nice words.”
Baker questioned why WorkSafe did not travel by helicopter, like police, or simply drive to the site – less than three hours from Napier.
She would have preferred a delay in the return of her brother’s body if it meant a specialist inspector could have visited the scene to ensure a thorough investigation.
A WorkSafe spokesman said the agency’s intent was to send an investigator to every fatality but it wasn’t possible in this instance.
“Because our investigation and any potential enforcement relies on securing evidence immediately after an event occurs, we needed police to carry out the scene examination on our behalf.
“Police are highly experienced and capable in scene examination and WorkSafe investigators were in touch with them throughout. WorkSafe is the agency carrying out the formal investigation.”
WorkSafe did not have access to helicopters, the spokesman said. The agency was working closely with Rawiri’s family and due to meet with whānau this week.