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Pat Groenhout, previous Managing Director of PF Olsen Australia (position at time of recording), has had a long career in the forestry industry that has taken him across different states working in consulting for government and now private industry as a General Manager of PF Olsen's Australian Operations. 

Pat is an experienced forest management professional who has held senior operational, executive and director roles in several commercial forest management companies. He is a passionate safety leader, with extensive experience in forest valuations, due diligence, company management and set-up and investment forestry. 

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3 Value Bombs


  1. Losing a team member has a profound impact for a lot of people and for a long time. It can impact someone and they become motivated to never let that happen again. For people who haven't experienced that, it's sometimes a little more difficult to step into that space of leading to avoid something rather than an obvious gain. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of leading safety as a prevention rather than a reaction.

  1. Safety can't be something that you just do at work because you have to, it has to be something that you do in all aspects of your life. Safety is a lifestyle choice, it’s not just about ticking boxes when you're at work. It's about saying, well, there's all sorts of things that can that can happen. But there's all sorts of things that you can do to mitigate that, whether you're at work, whether you're at home, wherever you are, just living and breathing the mantra of making sure that people get home every day to their family.

  1. Actively demonstrate that what you're asking other people to do is something that you are prepared to do yourself. Little things like PPE, and working sensible hours - be active in demonstrating the importance of this. Don't walk past something. The behaviour that you walk past is the behaviour that you accept. Be prepared for the emotion of it. Being aware that safety gone wrong means that people could die, or be permanently seriously injured and appreciating what that may feel like for you is a really good way to keep it front of mind.

Show Notes

Getting Started

[00:00:00] Welcome to this issue of Leading Safety - Keeping it Real. SafetyWorks' goal is to stretch a safety net of connections across the world through exchange of ideas between organisational leaders. These are the people who influence what thousands of people do every day at work and even at home through the culture they define and live that permeates through their organisations. In this podcast series, organisational leaders share their personal stories to support other leaders to keep people safe at work. We hope that as a busy leader, the podcast format will make it easy for you to listen and pick up some pearls of wisdom. No matter where you are in the car, in a plane, between meetings or with your leadership team, in a constantly changing global tech environment, work, health and safety is just one of the many areas executives and board members have to juggle. How do they fit health, safety and wellbeing in with running a successful, complex business, how do they keep it real? Our guests will share with us how they value the health and welfare of the people who work for them every single day. The challenges they faced and the super wins they've had that have provided the motivation to keep them in there. It's personal and real, and we know that you'll learn something along the way that will help you and you'll make some great connections. SafetyWorks is proud to bring you this podcast. So, let's chat. We're excited about welcoming today's guest, Pat Groenhout. We've known him as a safety champion for years in an industry with a reputation as high risk; forestry. A huge welcome to you, Pat. And thank you for agreeing to be a guest on the Leading Safety Keeping Safety Real podcast.

[00:01:40] Thank you, Kerry.

[00:01:41] Beginning with a formal qualification, you've had a long career in the forestry industry that's taken you across different states, working in consulting, for government and now in private industry as general manager of PF Olsen's Australian operations. I'd like to start our chat with a brief summary of your journey and how you see the industry has changed over this time.

[00:02:06] I guess the major change that's happened in the forest industry in in over my 25 or so years career has been the movement from predominantly manual operations to predominantly mechanised operations. So a significant shift from guys out sitting on chain saws, cutting down big trees in predominantly native forests and pine plantations to vast majority of operations now, particularly harvesting operations, being undertaken by machines with guys in cabins. So there's been a massive shift. It's also been, just in terms of the sector's attitude towards safety and approach to safety, there's been a significant shift in terms of the accountability, the shared accountability that the sector takes around safety. You know, back in the day when I first started working, you were lucky to even get some consistency within an organisation around safety, safety management, safety leadership and now we have a shared sense right across the sector about what it is we ought to be doing in relation to safety, how we ought to communicate that, how we ought to lead that and what our expectations are. So it's been quite dramatic.

[00:03:21] Yeah, that's great. So when you say across the sector, do you mean that the industry is working together, different organisations?

[00:03:26] Yes. Yes, that's right. Yes. So we have quite a strong collaborative group that runs across all the forest managers in Australia. It's chaired by a peer of mine and the focus of that group is to look at what our agreed critical rules are. For example, where are our areas of greatest exposure in relation to safety issues, whether it's haulage, whatever it might be. So that that group has made really significant progress over the last two or three years in particular.

[00:03:55] So that's pretty cool because I take it you're all competitors in business and yet you've managed to find this common ground.

[00:04:02] Yes, that's right. So it's been a really productive set up here, to be honest. It's been really, really good value.

[00:04:09] Okay. So for yourself, how did you find safety or did safety find you in some way? Can you give us a bit of backstory there?

[00:04:18] It's a really good question. I've pondered it a bit. I recall when I was still at university and me and a group of mates took on a contract thinning operation over a summer holiday, so we were doing it as subcontractors for a guy who was doing work with A.C.T. forests and I just recall this guy going white one day when I sort of walked around a tree that one of the other guys was felling on a slope and just, you know, it was it was it was a nuts thing I did. And this guy who was the employing us, engaging us was, he just went white. He thought I was gonna get chopped in half by a chainsaw I think. And so that that sort of stuck with me and I realised that I just hadn't even thought much about it. And I guess safety is probably through my professional career, safety has always been there, it's always been an element, but there have been some things that have triggered it. I did a lot of work in New Guinea when I was younger and I recall the first day that I turned up in New Guinea on the site where we were doing the work up in the north west of New Guinea that a tree faller had lost his leg and died on site that day. And I remember being really quite shocked by that and they were particularly challenging circumstances. And there was not a lot of care shown in those in those circumstances either. And a whole range of things that I witnessed there that that really gave me pause for thought. But probably the thing that is most cemented for me was when I was in my late 20s and I'd already been actively involved with safety in the organisation that I was with at the time. And that was a lot of process, which was okay but it probably didn't really get to the guts of of a mentality of safety and safety leadership. I was in charge of harvesting in the region where I worked and I was supervising a crew and we heard on the radio actually that there were ambulances on the way to a forestry operation where someone had been injured or killed. Ambulances and police, just by that description, it was pretty clear that it was this crew that was I was supervising and I I made my way out there with one of my colleagues and what had happened was that this guy who was a very experienced hand faller, had felled a tree and it had become caught up in another tree. And so he had arranged for the skitter driver to go and nudge the tree over. And while he was doing that, he stood back behind the skitter but he stood me an old dead burned-out tree, and it fell on him and broke his neck. And so I was the first forester on sight, and I knew this guy really well. I worked with him for a few years and, you know, used to have smoko with the crew. And he had a couple of young guys that were working with him. He was the crew leader. They had at that point done CPR on him for over an hour with no hope of it working, you know. Yeah, it was a it was a real shock. And it was a shock seeing him there. It was a shock knowing that that was it. And I sort of got through the process and the police were there with the ambos and we got all that sorted and then I I don't think I went back to the office. I headed straight home. I lived an hour away. And I remember getting halfway home and just it just hit me. It was it was a real it was a physical thing and quite an emotional thing. I still get quite, quite emotional about it now. It just hit me at that point that this wasn't right. You know, this this guy had daughters who in their late teens, early 20s, he wasn't going home to them that night. He had these two young guys that he'd worked with that spent an hour and a half or two hours trying to trying to revive him, you know, against the odds.

[00:07:52] Impacts so many people doesn't it?

[00:07:54] And I just decided at that point that I didn't want to ever be in a situation where someone on my watch didn't get home that night to their families.

[00:08:03] And it just goes on then, too, because the investigation and the fallout.

[00:08:08] Yeah, it went on for years. It was the first fatality that had happened in New South Wales related to forming at that point for maybe a decade, it had been quite some time. And then there were six others in the following two years. So it ended up becoming a WorkCover issue. And so I got interviewed quite early by WorkCover. That was that was really confronting and it was really, really abrasive. It was the day that Ansett went down, ironically, and then I went out to the airport to catch my plane home and there was nothing. So I ended up stuck in Casino for a few days. So that was yeah, it was really confronting. That was a really long was like a four or five hour interview with WorkCover and then several years later I then had to give evidence at a coronial, I'd moved organisations by then as well. Yeah. So I just sort of kept coming up in quite a confronting way.

[00:08:54] And it's interesting over my career I've been involved with a number of fatalities and those sorts of things. They impact people and people are so motivated to never let that happen again. People who haven't experienced that, it's sometimes a little more difficult to step into that space of leading to avoid something rather than an obvious gain. I guess that leads us into how did you come to understand what excellent safety leadership looks like other than beyond the process? Did you have a role model yourself?

[00:09:23] I probably had several through time. I remember there was a guy when I worked at State Forest of New South Wales, Bernie Kessell, who was the organisation's safety manager. He really was a process guy, but he was absolutely passionate about safety and about doing safety well and about people. And he brought a real emotion to it. I mean, you probably picked up already the emotion I still feel about the incident with Terry. Do recall Bernie being, you know, someone that inspired me to understand what I could do better. I don't think there's been a single point that I've really realised. It's really been a journey through time. I think, really at the point when PF Olsen Australia started to pick up clients and pick up in terms of its operations became a thing for me again, you know, putting on more staff, they were doing long hours on the road and were starting to think about what it was that we needed to do to keep people safe. So I think that point where I started growing this organisation, that was another key point. That point our forward group CEO Peter Clarke, was someone that that just kept safety at the forefront of everything, really drove the need to be in front of people talking about safety, people right through the business, employees, suppliers, whole lot.

Greatest Challenges & Lessons

00:10:30] What are perhaps some of the key things that you as an executive team do to demonstrate the visible aspect of safety leadership?

[00:10:38] We put KPI's around it, active KPI's. So we have an expectation, for example, that all of our senior managers get out, get in front of crews, talk to crews regularly. We actively participate internally in safety forums. I take a really active role, as does our board, in looking at incidents and incident trends and looking at where, not even the obvious necessarily. You know, recently, for example, we've had an increase in truck rollovers sort of over the last 18 months or so. And it just became obvious that we really needed to have a look at that and understand why and what was going on there. Done the same thing in the past with various other operations where we've seen a trend, whether it's, you know, within operations, rollovers on site with tractors and so forth. Bulldozers and skitters and so forth, or whether it's with thinning operations in Coppice and so forth. And I've really had the view that I need to take an active role in going through all of the information that we've got on a regular basis, seeing whether they're things that I pick up, you know, that maybe the guys missed because they're too close to it all, because they're separated geographically. As a senior management team, we get really actively involved at that level. So it's about people, it's about obvious trends. I think, I think a key thing always in it is just the people side of it's critically linked to people, obviously. And so, you know, appreciating that people are out there, that they get tired, that they do silly things, that silly things happen that are out of their control, that there are things that we can do actively to help them be aware and to help keep them safe.

[00:12:06] It's pretty unpredictable environment, isn't it, they they're working in?

[00:12:10] That's right.

[00:12:11] So what are a couple of wins or achievements that you're pretty proud of in keeping people safe at work?

[00:12:16] It's been a whole raft of things. Building the safety culture in this organisation has been really rewarding and seeing the way that people respond to that is really satisfying. One of the big wins early on with PF Olsen was when we started engaging contractors in in Western Australia. You know, we had this view that we needed to get in early with our new suppliers and really establish our expectations around how they would operate and what systems they would have in place and that sort of thing. And so we went around the country to all the different operations and did sort of system reviews and field audits of how those guys were going. And we got to Western Australia and there was just nothing. We went to do system reviews and talk to these guys and one guy whose safety system was an old JSA that had been photocopied half a dozen times from an organisation that didn't even exist anymore. So we've got some uphill battle here.

[00:13:06] That's really interesting that it stood out like that in the state.

[00:13:09] It was it was really obvious there in particular. And so we went about working with all of these new contracts we had. You know, we were putting on anywhere between eight and a dozen contracted crews to do work to various types of work. And we just went through a process of working with them gradually but quite quickly to build up their safety awareness and to build up a systematic approach to how they kept their guys safe. And it worked really well. We're in a situation now where it's just not the case, you know, eight years later. You know, we had some challenges along the way, we had some contractors we had to let go because they just weren't prepared to accept that that this was the way that things had to be done. There was a strictness about it I guess, you know, we were really keen to work with these guys. And yeah, that's been pretty rewarding. And just seeing the way that our approach to safety, particularly safety leadership, has evolved over the last decade to become something that's not directed from above, but actually owned by people on the ground and lived on a day-to-day basis.

[00:14:01] Yeah, it's not about the title, is it.

[00:14:03] No, no that's right.

[00:14:04] And people need to feel empowered that they can lead themselves and confident that they're going to get your backing. So apart from some contractors who may not have been aligned, other challenges, biggest challenge that you've had that you can recall in your career?

[00:14:17] There's always that challenge when people aren't prepared to take responsibility for themselves and others and how you work with that. And I find that when I experience that, I find it really frustrating. These things are important. That doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen from time to time.

[00:14:33] What are you hearing with other executives, maybe in your industry group, in the boardroom, about the biggest things that you're grappling with at the moment in health, safety and wellbeing?

[00:14:42] The big emerging one for us at the moment is in relation to mental health and wellbeing. It's a lot of conversation going on about that at the moment. It's multi-faceted obviously. It's an area that's increasingly of concern. Not that it shouldn't have been previously, we just have a greater awareness of the of the impacts of mental health.

[00:14:58] And you're not alone, it's across the board. Much more awareness.

[00:15:02] So that's a really big one and we're actually doing some active stuff within PF Olsen Australia at the moment around that. Some training coming up. It's a real challenge and I mean, I clearly don't have the answers to it, but it's something that we really need to be aware of and working with and providing resources around. Big one always in Forestry is in relation to fatigue, particularly fatigue, travel related fatigue. There's quite a bit of work going on around that at the moment. You know, we have guys driving 60 tons of metal and wood around on public roads and getting tired as people do. We've got staff driving around in vehicles. We've got people, contractors getting up early in the morning, driving out to site and, you know, working long hours and driving back home again, you know, potentially in the dark. So fatigue say is a real issue and, you know, I talked about the truck rollover trends that we were looking at recently, and fatigue played a factor in a few of those. There's been some really awful incidents over the last few years related to fatigue in our sector. We've moved mostly across the sector now to onsite drug and alcohol testing and I we started that a little over twelve months ago at PF Olsen Australia. I expected that to be an issue but actually, it hasn't at all, which has been immensely satisfying. We've had one, I think, non-negative test over twelve months or more twelve month testing program and I was really concerned when we started that it was going to be an issue.

[00:16:24] So can I just ask you then, if you didn't know if it was an issue, why were you doing it? Was it was it is this is an industry standard now to do that?

[00:16:32] Parent company New Zealand has been doing it for a long time. And there are some issues in New Zealand in relation to impairment. So we made the decision just internally to align do that. But at the same time, quite a few of our peer organisations were moving in that direction as well. There's been quite some debate around the sector about whether or not we needed to do it. You know, some have thought not. So we've made the decision to do it. And I think in hindsight, it was the right decision, but immensely satisfying to identify that we don't appear to have a significant issue at all in relation to substance abuse and impairment, in relation to forestry operations.

[00:17:04] And is that that extends to your contractors?

[00:17:06] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody.

[00:17:07] That's quite reassuring, isn't it?.

[00:17:09] Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

[00:17:10] Given the kind of equipment they work with. So how does your team, your management team, your executive team support issues around things like mental health, drug and alcohol fatigue because sometimes, you know, they can be their own worst enemies. They work long hours, they then drive, they fly, they do a lot of travel. They sometimes, you know, there can be, not a double standard, but certainly not necessarily adhering to the policies that they're trying to implement themselves on the ground. So how does your team support and demonstrate support for those things?

[00:17:40] It's just simple little things like for staff, if they are on a long drive and they're tired, you know, so one of the guys in Western Australia that was just so just stopping at a motel to do whatever you need to do to get some rest. You know, it's we'd much rather you got home tomorrow safely. Then not get home tonight. Yes. Lots of lots of practical things like that.

[00:18:01] And you and your teams.

[00:18:02] I Really push with my team that we need to demonstrate good behaviour like that. So if I'm driving somewhere, for example, I'll take a break every two hours at least if someone's with me I'll swap drivers and you know, do that really actively. There's a piece about the hours that people are working and just helping people to keep that in check, demonstrating that as well. In the fatigue space, we're doing some really practical things with testing some G.P.S. software just to help with issues around identifying whether those issues are in speed or travelling times and those sorts of things. Got to be careful with that because there's this privacy issues as well.

[00:18:35] Absolutely.

[00:18:36] And we're working we're working at the moment on a on fatigue related project with a bunch of other growers and suppliers and you know, some real evidence that when particularly in haulage, when truck drivers are actually confronted with data about the way that they've reacted in driving situations, it's a real wake up for them, even if they've been resistant beforehand. So actually providing people with information and demonstrating what can happen is is really important. In the mental health space you asked about so when we provide an EAP program to staff and we also take a really active approach to identify working with people around their mental health. No one's good to anyone if they're not the right space to be at work. You know, we've had recently a situation where a staff member was really knocked about badly and needed a break. He hadn't taken a decent break for quite a long time and just felt an obligation to sort of keep going. Some new staff had started, he was in a position of leadership and responsibility. I actually sat down with the guy and had a really good conversation with him about how he was going and checked in. And a few other people around the business were also aware and also checked in with him and we were able to encourage him to make the right decision to take some time off, to get some external help and start working on it. Like all of these things, it's going to be a bit of a journey for him, but he's in a much better space for that.

[00:19:59] And it's so important to lead by example in that space. People see their leaders taking care of themselves. Then they're more likely to do it themselves.

[00:20:08] Yeah, big challenge in that always for a bunch of middle-aged guys is being prepared to deal with emotion, it's important. You've got to be able to do it. It's a real thing to be an effective leader. You can't not deal with other people's emotions or not be able to accept them. It's pretty important. And that's a key thing around mental health. This is ultimately people's emotional wellbeing.

[00:20:28] So with all that swirling around, there's quite a lot of issues there as there are in many industries, how do you personally keep safety real?

[00:20:36] It's got to start with being everywhere. I've got young children at home. My 10 year old boy likes to get on the tools with me, he's quite handy. So, just for example, just at home, working with him, teaching him how to do things properly and what to be aware of. Keep your fingers out of the road and that sort of thing. You know, my 8 year old daughter has this attraction to touching hot things. Just talking her through that. "I burnt myself Dad". Really, it can't be something that you just do at work because you have to it has to be something that you do in all your life. It's when I'm driving anywhere. I'm actively counting seconds away from the car in front of me, you know, not touching my phone and not reacting to behaviour on the road, those sorts of things. And demonstrating that it's, I guess the way to describe it, you know, safety is a lifestyle choice, not just about ticking boxes when you're at work. It's actually about saying, well, there's all sorts of things that can that can happen. But there's all sorts of things that you can do to mitigate that, whether you're at work, whether you're at home, wherever you are, just that mantra of making sure that people get home every day and to their family. And, you know, I had an example recently with our group CEO. We were in Tasmania and we were some people were sitting in the board room at our Launceston office and he looked out and looked at the building across the car park and then he disappeared. We came back about 10 minutes later and he had said a couple of guys on the roof and that sort of factories across the carpark without any restraints or anything, and he went down and he spoke to the people in the building said, you realise this is going on.

Pearls of Wisdom

[00:22:05] Fabulous. It's leading by example, you know, going above and beyond. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Just a couple to finish. I'd like to extract a couple of pearls of wisdom. Firstly, what would you do differently if you had your time again?

[00:22:20] There are definitely situations when I was younger, when I when I walked past something rather than confronting it. And if I had my time again, I wouldn't do that. I would call out. If I had my time again, I would probably get less wrapped up in process and more wrapped up in outcomes and attitude and culture. Yeah. Culture. Yes. But that's part of the learning and part of the introduction to it.

[00:22:46] Yeah, definitely. I think the regulators that legislation has taken a long time to evolve anywhere near that point. Really, it's always it's been about compliance and rules and they are absolutely critical and important to have. But that's got to be balanced with culture for sure. And finally, what advice would you give to executives of the future as to how best to influence the health, safety and wellbeing of the people who work for them?

[00:23:12] I think the first is to actively demonstrate that what you're asking other people to do is something that you are prepared to do yourself. Little things like PPE, whether it's working sensible hours, you know, whatever there happens to be. I would say be active. Don't walk past something. Someone wrote something recently that I saw, one of my colleagues wrote, the behaviour that you walk past is the behaviour that you accept. And that really, really resonated for me. Be prepared for the emotion of it. And I recalled that story earlier on when we started, I still feel quite emotional about that situation, and that keeps it real. Being aware that safety gone wrong means that people could die or be permanently seriously injured. And appreciating what that feels like for you is for me a really good way to keep it front of mind.

[00:24:04] Great. Thank you. We'll leave it there.

[00:24:06] Thanks Kerry.

[00:24:06] Thanks very much.

[00:24:07] No, it's a pleasure.

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