The largest early New Zealand industry was whaling, which began in 1791. Whalers faced dangers catching whales and rendering down blubber in large cauldrons.
Other early industries were based on felling timber and extracting natural resources such as gold and coal. Logging was dangerous work and accidents were common. Dozens of men were crushed by falling trees every year in the late 19th century. Branches flying off a falling tree were so deadly they were known as widow-makers. A timber worker clearing a logjam in a river had to be ‘almost as limber as a cat, it being near certain death to fall’.1
Māori climbed towering kahikatea trees for delicious seasonal berries, koroī, which ripen high in the canopy and were eaten by the basket load. The harvesters – who fell to their deaths if they slipped – were recalled in the proverb ‘He toa piki rākau kahikatea, he kai nā te pakiaka’ (the bold kahikatea climber is food for the roots).
In mines and quarries, and on road and railway works, deaths by crushing were common. Miners were smothered underground, or died from drowning, sickness, or poisoning from handling dangerous chemicals.
‘Blood on the coal’
Fatal and serious accidents were so common in coal mines that the miners had a saying, ‘There’s always blood on the coal’. They were paid by how much coal they produced, and this led to unsafe working practices. In 1879, 34 miners lost their lives after an explosion in the Kaitangata coal mine in South Otago. Those not killed in the explosion died of suffocation.
Jack Wood, a pioneer resident of the remote bush community of Mangapūrua on the Whanganui River, remembered the dangers of shifting large logs with a draught horse. ‘It was necessary to unhook the horse and take the timber around an extra-sharp bend on rollers … We were just on completing the job when George had a very nasty accident for the block … ran up on his left hand, severing his small finger.’’2
A lack of safety lamps in the mine meant that miners sometimes used ordinary candles underground and one of these caused the firedamp (methane gas from coal) to ignite.
Early colonial New Zealand was a maritime country dependent on coastal transport and overseas trade. Working conditions on its ships caused accidents. There was a constant risk of shipwreck, and many sailors worked high above deck on foot ropes, often in strong winds and rain.
As manufacturing industries developed, new kinds of industrial accidents became common. Many woollen mill workers were girls as young as 14, and some had to work 18 hours a day. Tiredness led to frequent injuries from the machinery. By 1891 the death rate from workplace accidents was higher than in Britain and much of Australia.