East Coast women step up to prioritse forestry safety

June 11, 2024

Forestry health and safety can be a scary thing if you don’t do it right. If we were looking for a reason not to have started our business two years ago, health and safety compliance would have been it.”

Tania Gibb is thankful that she and her husband, Irvin ‘Smurf’ Gibb, forged ahead with starting their Gisborne contracting business, Rā Whakapono Logging, in 2022. While the couple committed to rolling out best practices for Rā Whakapono’s health and safety processes, Tania went a step further in her learning and graduated with a New Zealand Certificate in Workplace Health and Safety Practice Level 3 this month.

Her training was generously funded by Eastland Wood Council (EWC), after the council joined forces with WorkSafe, Competenz and various industry stakeholders to create a course aimed at empowering women working in the region’s forestry industry, to enhance the safety standards in their organisations.

Twelve Tairāwhiti women have completed the Level 3 health and safety programme, and in June, 10 graduates will step up to the Level 4 programme.

Eastland Wood Council Health, Safety and Training committee chair, and acting head of the Women in Tairawhiti Forestry group, Jessie Bourke, says the collective commitment of the group stakeholders to launch the course highlights the industry's commitment to fostering inclusivity, professional development, and a culture of safety.

“By giving so many women the opportunity to attend, we have instantly driven up the health, safety and wellbeing knowledge within small businesses in our community - arguably the most high-risk industry here on the East Coast. That is a win for women and for our communities,” said Jessie. 

She says there was an enormous response to the EWC’s call for applications, and every spot was filled with a waitlist at hand.

“These courses have not been run in Tairāwhiti for several years so it has been great to offer them and know that the cost burden to small businesses would be alleviated through the funding.

Tania agrees that the programme has far-reaching impacts for other women working in forestry.

“Women are under utilised in forestry. I was already running the health and safety in our business if a little blindly. I know there are other forestry businesses in the same boat -female employees and co-owners who are also the health and safety reps who can fill this gap in their business. More women could be empowered and recruited into these programmes.

“Health and Safety training opens the door for women in forestry. Some may prefer to work hours that are suited to family life—not getting up at 4 am when the crews start—and for me, the programme has allowed me to do my bit for our family business, as I can’t drive the machines.”

Tania believes crew behaviour changes for the better when there is a female influence in the team.  She says, “this applies from management to the forest.” Stating she saw a welcome shift in how health and safety is perceived in the industry.

“Over the last five years, operating sustainably and prioritising health and safety have played equal parts in our decision-making and how other contractors run their businesses. Before we started our business two years ago, we could see contractors accepting jobs without a full understanding of the health and safety risks involved with them. Now people are more open to talking about what is working, what needs improving and how to put in place the building blocks that will provide a safer working environment. The sector is bringing in experts with the right knowledge to change how we do things. There is a transformation happening and the industry’s improved safety data reflects this.”

Competenz Training Advisor Steven Jones organised the courses. He has witnessed significant changes in forestry safety.

“As a former forestry contractor for 30 years and a trainer and assessor for 10, I have seen a changing shift away from an outdated acceptance that workplace accidents are the nature of the job to the whole industry opening their eyes to the health and safety risks being too big without it.

Steven says the professional development programme equips women for career advancement, while positioning them as valuable contributors to the industry.

“They are gaining the tools to improve safety in their workplaces and long term, they can move from one organisation to another, carrying over what they have learnt while lifting the health and safety standards in a new work environment.”


Tania says Rā Whakapono has a team of 11 staff, and she has already earmarked a team member for the nationally recognised Level 3 and 4 training.

She says the business has always been focused on work-based learning.

“We currently have 60 to 70percent of our staff in training through Competenz. With 20 years of experience as a logger’s wife and hearing stories from the sector, we have been able to reflect on what’s important in the sector—training and retaining staff is at the top of our list and comes before profit.

She welcomes more industry-driven initiatives like this one.

“Training our people, especially women, inspires positive change and drives meaningful impact for forestry.”