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Forestry workers get fit for work and life

Could you and your workmates help each other get healthier? Gisborne forestry worker Wade Brunt transformed his health, then helped his workmates do the same.

Wade Brunt worked in Tairāwhiti’s logging industry for 17 years. When he started, as a chainsaw operator, he felt healthy and in top condition. "I was carting a chainsaw around on the hills, swinging it around and trimming branches and cutting trees. I was walking the hills, so I was very fit and strong."

Seven years into his forestry career, Wade, whose whakapapa is Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Whātua, was promoted to the role of machine operator. It was an achievement, but the result of "going from swinging a chainsaw to sitting in the machine all day" had a huge impact on him physically. "After four or five years in the machines, I'd become pretty overweight, I put on about 20 kilos, I was very unfit."

When his doctor told him that, based on his height and weight, he was officially obese, it was a wake up call. The break-up of his marriage in 2017 was another prompt to do something about his health.

"I wanted to feel better so I thought training and getting physcially healthy, losing some weight, would make me feel better. I joined up at the gym, looked online and found some diet tips and I was doing those. From April 2017 to November 2017 I lost 35kgs."

But despite his outward physical transformation, Wade knew that he wasn't feeling as good on the inside. "I was struggling with some things around the break up and separation, so I attended counselling, and that really helped me deal with things like depression and a few other issues that were going on."

When Wade returned to work, he felt transformed, both physically and mentally. But he also realised many of his crew were struggling with the same issues, too. He created an eight-week health camp for his workmates. "There was originally just 10 and that number grew to 35."

The health camp are essentially group fitness training, using equipment from the forestry industry. "We get 20-litre drums, chainsaws, and carry them around. [We] take them up our local hill, Titirangi, in Gisborne."

There's plenty of cardio work, but the training sessions always finish with a kōrero. "We’d always talk, share, and relate to each other, things that were going on, get things off our chest. That was covering mental health."

He also created Jogging for Logging — a relay from Gisborne to Tolaga Bay that involved participants in the health camps.

Machine operator Atahere Cameron says he lost 15kgs and his cholesterol dropped "quite a bit" after 16 weeks on Wade's course. Loader driver John Ellery is down 6kgs overall after eight weeks, and he's feeling more active and involved with both his work and personal life. "Every day life is a lot easier, to get around. I walk the settings before I go fell them, and I get a bit more involved, even with home stuff. It's been mean – a good journey."

"It not only goes with keeping your body physically fit but it keeps you mentally fit as well," says timber trainer/auditor Nigel Drummond. "Having that mental fitness is keeping you focussed on your health and safety, and what you do in your role. Basically, keeping your mind on the job."

Wade says the training gave his crew better morale and more energy. "Instead of turning up [to work] tired, and not wanting to get into things, you turn up, ready to go. We're all getting along, a lot better. Instead of going out to party after work, me and the guys will go and walk up our local hill, or go to the gym." 

"I challenge everyone in our industry, from our workers on the ground to our supervisors right at the top, to live more healthier lives," he adds. "You come to work as more happy, productive workers. What you do at home, outside of work, is how you're going to function at work."

Wade won a Tairāwhiti Man of the Year award for his work from Tairāwhiti Trust in 2019. In 2020 he was a finalist in the New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety Awards.

After 17 years of frontline forestry work, last year he became a Safetree 'Toroawhi' in the Tairāwhiti area. Toroawhi means 'together, we will create change'. Wade's role is to support and mentor forestry workers, and get them more engaged with health and safety issues. But, he says, it's about more than just regulation.

"Most health and safety is focused around safety policies and compliance and so on. But it's equally important to look after your physical and mental wellbeing. I believe a healthy worker is a safer worker."

Visit Safetree's website to see a video about Wade and his work.

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