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
A government minister is seeking an explanation from WorkSafe about why it chose not to send an investigator to the scene of a fatal forestry accident.
It follows the death of Jason Rawiri, 42, who was struck by a falling tree at Ngātapa near Gisborne on October 14.
WorkSafe has copped flak for sending police to carry out a scene examination, rather than a specialist investigator.
Worker advocates question whether police have the necessary expertise to gather evidence from a forestry fatality site to support a potential prosecution and have labelled WorkSafe’s actions disrespectful to the victim and his whānau.
Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Wood expressed his sympathies to Rawiri’s family.
“Families should have confidence that when their love ones head to work, they will come home safe.”
Wood told the Herald the specific circumstances of the accident needed to be fully investigated to understand what happened, but he wanted an explanation about WorkSafe’s decision.
“I will be asking WorkSafe directly why they did not send an inspector to the site.
“WorkSafe works with the wider system to ensure investigations are completed to a high standard. However, it is important that the agency communicates effectively with victims and their families so they are informed and understand the investigation process.”
Forestry is one of the nation’s deadliest industries, with 50 fatalities in the last decade.
Wood said supporting WorkSafe to reduce harm in high-risk sectors such as forestry was a priority for him as minister.
“I have taken a particular interest in the high rates of harm in the sector, specifically in Tairawhiti, and am visiting the region soon to meet with workers and community and sector leaders who are working with WorkSafe to change things for the better.”
Work was underway to update regulations for plants and structures, including forestry sites.
“This will help operators ensure their sites are operating to a high standard, protecting workers and visitors.
“It is important that the forestry industry reflects on their safety record and what more they can do to keep people safe.”
Rawiri’s wife Carol said it’s understood her husband – an experienced and respected forestry worker – died minutes after finishing his shift in a “freak accident”.
His death had left a “chasm” in her life and sent shockwaves through the forestry community.
Video on social media shows his coffin being carried on the back of a McIndoe Logging truck to his final resting place at Taupiri Maunga Urupa following his tangi last Wednesday, and a logging crew revving chainsaws to honour their fallen brother.
Police Investigations acting director Inspector Geoff Jago said police and WorkSafe worked together and shared information on investigations under an agreed memorandum of understanding.
Police also undertook investigations on behalf of the Coroner and had jurisdiction in the case of a death under the Coroner’s Act.
“It is not unusual for WorkSafe and police to conduct investigations in tandem,” Jago said.
“Police’s role at the scene of a workplace death, including deaths in the forestry sector, is to coordinate and preserve evidence, and to manage experts as needed in order to gather the information needed to support both the police and WorkSafe investigations.”
Police had particular expertise in managing evidence and managing incident scenes, but coordinated with WorkSafe if “additional expertise” was required during a scene examination.
“In any investigation into a death, police and WorkSafe strive to find the truth as to what has occurred, to bring closure for families, and where appropriate, to hold people to account and to identify opportunities to prevent fatalities from happening again.”
Tāngata Humāria Charitable Trust campaigns for safer work conditions in the forestry sector.
Trustee Candice Gate believed WorkSafe should have prioritised its resources to send an investigator to the accident site – only a short drive from Gisborne city – particularly given the industry’s deadly record and the number of young Māori men dying on the East Coast.
“What is more important than coming to a fatality and giving Jason and his whānau the respect they deserve in terms of a thorough and full investigation? I’m gobsmacked.”
WorkSafe has defended its actions, saying it reviewed material provided to police before releasing the accident site back to contractors to ensure appropriate information was collected.
It had opened an inquiry into the accident and said police were not carrying out the formal investigation.
First Union assistant general secretary Louisa Jones said she was “deeply concerned” that police were attending fatalities instead of specialist WorkSafe investigators.
She planned to raise concerns with the Forestry Industry Safety Council.