"It’s a privilege, not a right, that people chose to work for us. Its our duty to serve them well."

Zac Robinson

Zac robinson
"The increased trust between our staff has made our workplace a more enjoyable place to be."

NAME: Zac Robinson

ROLE: Health, Safety and Environment Manager, Port Blakely

REGION: Canterbury

SECTOR: Forestry


Based in Timaru, Zac Robinson is the Health, Safety and Environment Manager for forest owners and managers Port Blakely. The company won the Safe and Healthy Work Environment award at MPI’s Good Employer Awards in 2021. He shares how creating a health and safety culture in partnership with their staff and contractors is keeping the business and its people safe.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your business.

I began my career on the tools, working as an arborist and in the back country for DOC as well as a stint in mining before I took on my current health and safety role for Port Blakely. It’s a very holistic and practical job that allows me to support the physical, emotional, and financial safety and health of our staff and contractors.

The multi-generational, family-owned company started in the US and has been operating in New Zealand for over 25 years.

Our permanent staff (26) and contractors (200+) work in our forests and operations in Mt Maunganui, Christchurch, Geraldine and as far south as Gore.

What inspired you to improve the health and safety of your workplace?

Health and safety has always been a fundamental part of our company’s family-like culture. Our commitment to health and safety is driven by our staff and contractors on the ground, and it’s engrained in our culture. We all share the responsibility for health and safety. It’s not seen as an add-on.

The changes to New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act in 2015 had a huge impact on every workplace. Health and safety could no longer be subcontracted to a small group of people within an organisation. Since then, every single person in an organisation is required to take all reasonable steps to keep themselves and others safe at work.

Which initiatives or courses have helped you improve your workplace?

The company has embraced many health and safety initiatives over many years. All the little steps have added up to make a big difference.

Since 2011, Port Blakely has been part of a programme that focuses on our health and safety culture. Working with Wiremu Edmonds from Tuakiri, Neil Thomas of Forestsafe and Dr Hilary Bennett of Leading Safety, the program worked with all our crews to take a holistic focus on their business, communications and systems. Experts from outside the company are brought in to discuss different aspects of health, safety and wellbeing. Crew visits by Wiremu and Neil periodically through the year help everyone become self-sufficient and able to take ownership of their health and safety decisions.

It’s important to have programmes available and systems in place but a strong health and safety culture relies on the engagement of the people on the ground. For us, it’s integrated – a part of our culture, the way we work. Compliance keeps our business safe. Our culture keeps our people safe. Now we bring in external experts if and when we need to, for example when new staff join our team or during the Covid-19 lockdowns when our sector couldn’t operate and people needed extra mental health support.  

What changes have you and your team made?

Using the work culture as a foundation Port Blakely have adopted a ‘Wellbeing by Design Strategy’, taking a holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing.  When it comes to our staff and contractors’ mental health and wellbeing, we don’t want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Forestry is a male dominated industry with the second highest suicide rate in NZ. We work really hard to be aware of how someone’s job could be impacting their wellbeing.

The programmes and initiatives we’ve taken on have helped us raise our health and safety standards, and have enabled us to have difficult discussions. There’s a lot of trust built between people along the way and the discussions always end well. Everyone accepts that it’s OK to raise an issue without fear.

Were the changes hard to implement?

It takes time to upskill. Everyone is busy but we’re constantly striving to improve.

As forestry moves towards mechanisation, we’re empowering our people on the tools to invest in those technologies. The people on the ground often have the best ideas for things that can improve their health and safety as well as productivity. 

If we want to change something, or as technology changes, there are likely to be challenges. But with the right attitude, those challenges can be overcome. Changes we’ve made have been well accepted because we see our contractors as the experts, and everyone’s on board from the start.

How have the changes benefited your workplace?

Partnering with our staff and contractors makes our workplace safer, and having a safer workplace makes us a more productive business. The increased trust between our staff has made our workplace a more enjoyable place to be. We’ve had the same crews for years with almost no staff turnover. We also have excellent reporting of incidents and near-misses, things that may seem insignificant can identify trends that are occurring and allow us to be pro-active instead of reactive.

How did you learn about the resources/initiatives available to you? Were they easy to access?

There’s a lot of collaboration within the forestry sector, and through the Forest Industry Safety Council there are many resources available. TAG – tech action groups – are established for set projects that involve a wide breadth of people from the industry and are also a good resource. We also look to learn from other industries where we can.

What advice would you give to other employers wanting to create a great workplace?

The easiest way to get started is to talk to and develop partnerships with your people on the ground. Ask them what their challenges are because 90 percent of the time they have great solutions. Not only that but your staff will see you as ‘real’; someone who really cares about their health, wellbeing and safety. As managers, we need to listen, learn and facilitate conversations for constant improvement.

What next?

Our critical risks are always a priority, for example contractors working on steep slopes or loading and unloading logging trucks. We’re also committed to our staff and contractors’ mental health and wellbeing. There are always opportunities to learn from our good practices and positive role modelling across our many operations.

Top Tips

Develop partnerships with your people on the ground – they’re the experts.

Compliance will keep your business safe. Your culture will keep your people safe.

Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, challenge the norms and have difficult conversations.

Next Steps