NZ Injury Count from the Bandsaw is Phenomenal

South Pacific Meats (SPM) has come under fire from workers after a high number of accidents at the plant, however, the company says the problem may lie with the workers' drug habits.

In the last two years the Labour Department has investigated 20 serious accidents at the Talleys-owned plant in Invercargill, with four workers losing parts of their fingers or thumbs on bandsaws this year alone.

The Meat Workers Union claims 12 have had amputations in the past 18 months, although the company denies the number is that high.

Gary Davis, the Otago-Southland Meat Workers Union secretary, says the injury count from the bandsaw device alone is phenomenal.

"There's been something like 21 major injuries with those bandsaws over the last two years," he told TV ONE's Close Up.

"It's incredibly high, probably the rest of the meat industry in New Zealand wouldn't have had that many," he says.

SPM plant manager Malcolm Hampton acknowledges incidents have come about, but says the work place is safe.

"No, we certainly don't run an unsafe plant. We've had a number of instances that have occurred, particularly on the bandsaws and we've worked through each one of those with the Department of Labour and made changes as we've identified the issues," he says.

Worker Henry Kingi, who lost part of his thumb while working on the saw at the Awarua plant, says he had learnt to use the tool the night before his accident, and that he received only 20 minutes of training.

The next day, his boss refused his request to work a different job after feeling too sore.

"I explained to my boss I wanted a bit of a break because I was feeling a bit sore, and he told me to harden up and get up on the saw and an hour later, there goes my thumb," says Kingi.

And although he has been on compensation since, the accident has taken its toll.

"It has been hard, mentally and financially and physically. This is a working body, I'm a working man."

He also accuses his boss of making racist remarks.

"He was calling me a nigger, so I don't think I should work for someone who thinks that of me," he says.

Hampton, however, says Kingi had training prior to arriving at SPM and that training supervision has since been "extensively upgraded".

The Department of Labour are aware of the events, but Davis says they have not been forthcoming with details.

"After the first one or two you would have thought they would have done something about it, and when we contacted OSH they were reluctant to give us much information at all," he says.

The department refused to talk to Close Up, saying it was still investigating, but told Kingi they would not be taking any further action at this time.

Employers claim Drug issues

Another worker, Wade McLutchie, who has been in the industry for 10 years, had an accident last May.

"Previously we'd used water on the saw which had made it easier to move it around. On that day we'd been told water was no longer being used," he says.

He returned to SPM after four and a half months off, but was recently fired after failing a random drug test.

He refutes being impaired by drugs at the time of his accident.

"I've never smoked before work, or at work ... the job I have to do you need all the concentration you can get. Because of all the accidents out there, they're trying to push the blame around and they're tying to blame it on the cannabis smokers."

Hampton, though, says their concern lies with the amount of drug-users and the potential the substances have to impair workers.

"We tested our sawmen and found 65% of them return a positive result for drugs.

"The issue is that we believe that the drugs are a contributing factor to the incidents that we've had, and we were shocked by the number that we found when we tested the sawmen."

McLutchie, however, says accidents are happening because of a lack of training, as well as too much pressure on workers to meet a quota they must make to receive their full pay.

At other freezing works, McLutchie says, you would do "between 170 and 180 (carcasses) an hour", but at SPM, "you're basically doing 300 and 350 an hour".

Hampton says the plant "is no different to any other plant in New Zealand or overseas for that matter".

Union representative Davis is no longer allowed on the plant due to disagreements about the random drug testing, but says the issue is not relevant to the accidents.

"We won't represent anybody that's consuming or in possession of drugs on plant, but our argument with the employer is a lot of these people do smoke cannabis in the weekends. It's just a common thing unfortunately in our workforce.

"The fact is the people who did cut themselves weren't under the influence of cannabis or any other drugs as I understand."

Ongoing incidents

Since McLutchie's accident there have been at least nine serious others, and five amputations.

Davis says the continuing accidents are ruining lives, but that injured workers are too scared to speak out.

"I find it very, very frustrating. I'm having to deal with people that have lost their livelihoods, missing fingers, they'll never be able to work the same as what they have in the past before.

"I've been given letters from their lawyers this week threatening to sue me personally, I'm not phased by that, because I've said to our people if I tell the truth I've got nothing to fear," he says.

Hampton says positive changes have already been made, and that employees are satisfied.

"The people out there are certainly really happy with the changes we've made in that room, and we're working collectively with the health and safety committee members throughout the plant, and there's a positive atmosphere out there," he says.

The Department of Labour says they are on record expressing concerns about the health and safety at the plant and are still investigating three incidents.

They say they are working closely with both the union and the company.