In this series of articles, we will be sharing exclusive coverage from all aspects of APF 2022. 

Bringing together members of the FCA, FISA, HSE, the LWA and more, the Forest Worker Zone at APF 2022 set out to address some of the industry’s biggest challenges. It certainly got people talking.

THE APF is a great place to get folk around a table and tackle the key issues of the day.

This year, the Forest Worker Zone sought to do just that with two seminars on pressing topics for the people on the ground.

The first, on Thursday, addressed the pros and cons of mechanisation, inspired by the recent issuing of guidance from FISA which said the first recourse, when felling a tree, should be to machines, with reliance on traditional hand cutting strongly discouraged.

READ MORE: APF 2022: Record number of visitors turn out for forestry show

Chaired by Tim Cumine of Sticks Unlimited, the panel assembled to debate the topic comprised trainer and assessor for mwmac Ceri Hughes, HSE’s policy lead on forestry and arboriculture, Kathy Gostick, the FCA’s Simon Bowes and Neil McKay of FISA.

Somewhat ironically, much of the debate around the use of hand cutting was drowned out by the sound of chainsaws being demonstrated at the nearby Stihl tent, but it still ended up being quite a productive discussion.

Forestry Journal: Ceri Hughes.Ceri Hughes. (Image: FJ)

Putting the case forward for mechanisation, Kathy said: “The industry has a very high accident rate, with 90 per cent of those killed being chainsaw operators underneath a tree or on part of a tree. Mechanisation takes those people outside of the risk zone.”

Neil added: “Mechanisation not only takes away the risk of being killed by a tree, but also the longer-term musculoskeletal problems hand cutters are left with. Having said that, I see many areas where men with a chainsaw still have their place. And often it is the difficult trees on difficult ground. That’s the catch. So we need greater professionalism of chainsaw operators.”

Simon agreed there is an argument for mechanisation, but said: “Even if you put harvesters and tree shears everywhere, there are still jobs they wouldn’t be able to cope with. I’m happy to endorse machinery, but we’ve got to be very careful about preserving a core of good hand cutters.”

Speaking from the perspective of a hand cutter, Ceri said: “We all know what the risks are. Experienced operators still get it wrong. That’s why you should, if you can, put something mechanical in there first.”

When the debate was opened up to the audience gathered in the FWZ tent, some pointed to areas of their business where hand cutters were absolutely required and said the latest guidance would only cause more problems, without addressing the issue of competence.

Simon said: “I think we all accept now that chainsaw tickets are not fit for purpose. The competency system is a great idea, but FISA’s chainsaw working group has stalled and we need to get it going again.”

Forestry Journal: Simon Bowes and Neil McKay were there for both debates Simon Bowes and Neil McKay were there for both debates (Image: FJ)

Much of the rest of the event was spent identifying ways in which the working group could be helped to achieve its aims – and participants left feeling some real progress may have been achieved.

Friday’s seminar saw both Simon and Neil return, alongside the Forestry Commission’s Steve Fowkes and hand cutter Kezia Rose, who was also representing the Landworkers’ Alliance – and even a microphone, so everyone could hear what said! 

This time the question up for debate was: ‘How to improve the conditions and wellbeing of forestry to retain and attract workers?’

Sharing his own perspective, chair Tim said it was uncertain where a worker could secure support given the lack of an overarching union. He said the industry remains widely influenced by money.

Steve spoke of the “unprecedented” interest and growth of the industry, but made the point the money – including that offered by the government – only works with sufficient people in the workforce.

Throughout the discussion, there was some feeling that forestry professionals remain undervalued by the public at large. Simon said the welfare of contractors was not respected, adding: “To be respected, we have to be more professional.”

But he made the point that contractors couldn’t raise prices to cover the costs of meeting all the latest regulations. Doing that would mean losing out on the work. Yet the cost of welfare was usually expected to come out of a contractor’s pocket.

Offering the hand cutter’s view, Kezia said: “No one has ever said they’d love a welfare unit.” She listed some of the genuine concerns of people on the ground, including the rural housing crisis that was stopping them from living close to work.

Mental health was, she said, what the panel was really talking about, exacerbated by low pay and problems with education.

Simon said he often received calls from contractors who had no one else to turn to.

Kezia added: “We need to look out for one another, check in on one another, and make sure we are one big support group.”

“That’s why shows like the APF are so great,” said Simon. “They hold the industry together.”