For the past decade, Nelson businessman Dale Ewers’ goal has been to get workers in the logging industry out of harm’s way.
In 2010 Ewers, the chief executive of Moutere Logging Ltd and DC Equipment, set a 20-year plan for his company to reduce work accidents to zero – in an industry where logging crews on steep slopes faced challenging and often dangerous conditions.
Now more than a decade in, Ewers said the project had been a huge success – with safety incidents in the past few years having “flatlined close to zero”.
“Our biggest risk at the moment for our staff is travelling to and from work.”
The key to the reduction in safety incidents and near misses had been mechanising the most dangerous jobs – falling trees and manually retrieving them for transport.
Ewers said for most jobs now, operators were able to both fall and retrieve trees from the safety of an enclosed cab.
The first milestone was achieved in 2012 with the innovation of the Falcon Grapple Claw, a motorised ‘grapple carriage’ that can retrieve logs from the slopes controlled by the logger from inside a protective cab on the top of the hill.
The second major breakthrough was the development of a carriage which could fall trees – again being controlled remotely by an operator some 500m away.
With these (and other) safety developments, Ewers said Moutere Logging was now manually falling just 10 per cent of its wood, compared to about 80 per cent a decade ago – while at the same time doubling the volume of logs harvested.
He said there had been an even bigger change with retrieving logs, with just three per cent of logs being retrieved manually, from a starting point of about 95 per cent.
While at the moment operators still needed to be on site for the harvesting process, Ewers said he wanted to take the plan further over the next few years.
“By 2022, we’ll be able to harvest [fell and retrieve] a tree and return it to the landing with the push of buttons. And by 2025, we’ll be able to do it all from afar, from the office.”
Ewers said his vision to improve worker safety was driven by his own experiences in the logging industry from an early age.
When Ewers set up Moutere Logging just over 30 years ago at the age of 23 – he had already gathered plenty of experience in the industry.
He felled his first tree on his father’s plantation at the age of 12, and when he was 14 he left school and headed to the bush to fell trees on contract.
Looking at the safety standards back then, Ewers said it was hard to believe more people hadn’t been killed or injured.
“We didn’t have hard hats, we were felling trees with just shorts and a pair of boots on and a chainsaw.
“We had to use our common sense – we didn’t have many injuries – but we had quite a lot of close calls back then. But as time has gone on, the industry has got bigger, there’s more productivity required on a daily basis, and more production pressure.”
However, Ewers said he had also seen first-hand what happened when things go wrong.
“I’m over picking people up off the side of the hill.
“I’ve been in Nelson Hospital where there was a staff member in a coma, you’re walking up and down the hallway in intensive care and his mum and dad and sisters and brothers were there – that was a horrible experience to go through and I never want to do that again.”