On Farm Safety

July 2015

Helping farmers work towards safer farm practices

The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) reported that in 2013, just under one-quarter of agriculture, forestry and fishery workers had a work-related injury claim accepted. Quad bikes are involved in about 28% of work-related farm deaths. Five people, on average, are killed in quad bike accidents each year, and another 350 are injured.

Farmers could be prosecuted under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1992, if their negligence has contributed to an employee’s death or injury. A couple of high profile cases have highlighted this, including the $40,000 fine in December last year for a Marlborough farming couple not wearing their helmets on a quad bike, after repeated warnings from WorkSafe NZ.

A Health and Safety Reform Bill is expected to pass this year – part of a Working Safer package aimed at reducing New Zealand’s workplace injury and death toll by 25% by 2020.

The new act could hold company directors and owners to account if employees were injured or killed.

On the flip side, farmers could qualify for a 10% discount in ACC levies if they provided paperwork showing they had effective health and safety systems and practices in place and this was confirmed by an audit.

Taranaki farmer and Federated Farmers chairperson, Bronwyn Muir, manages a farm safety consultancy which is helping farmers reduce, identify and address risks on their properties to prevent deaths and injuries. It is also analysing client statistics, to get a closer understanding of accidents, and feeding findings back to ACC.

The data suggests that the numbers being published are a little misleading. There are extenuating factors, especially around the hazardous terrain of many farms and nature of the job, including the unpredictability of animals.

Bronwyn Muir is a farmer, Taranaki Federated Farmers chairwoman and Rural Support Services Trustee. In 2013 she launched OnFarmSafety NZ, a national consultancy that advises farmers on how to minimise health and safety risks on their properties and comply with the law.

When travelling New Zealand in a previous role with NZ Young Farmers, Bronwyn found farmers everywhere struggling with health and safety compliance. There were perhaps 40 codes and guidelines, owners’ manuals and the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1992 to get to grips with and a Health and Safety Reform Bill likely to be passed this year.

“I thought, there is a business in this,” she says. “Farmers are struggling, don’t know how to communicate with staff and are prepared to pay for specialist help.”

Today OnFarmSafety employs eight fulltime staff including six on the road with offices in Taranaki, the Waikato and Southland and plans to open a branch in Gisborne.

The business’ key message is that farm safety is not about erecting signs and ticking boxes on paper. It offers tailored online health and safety systems, accessed by computer or cellphone, kept active and updated while adding to industry data. Paper-based systems are available and suit some farming systems, but the overwhelming trend is towards computers.

OnFarmSafety NZ’s first step is a phone call to the client to ask what health and safety systems are already in place. Many farmers say they bought a system off the shelf but after ticking the boxes, it was gathering dust.

The second step is an audit to establish the health and safety culture of the farm and whether everyone is involved. Most farm employers had unwritten rules such as helmets must be worn on motorbikes or there must always be at least two people present when handling bulls. However, even good operators would have trouble proving this on paper, if there was an accident on their property.

Next is touring the farm to identify hazards, followed by writing templates.

In the first six months of a plan, OnFarmSafety makes monthly visits then annual reviews of systems and to make sure people are talking to one another.

“Without good communication, everything comes to a grinding halt.” says Bronwyn. “To most farmers, health and safety rules might seem like common-sense, however they need to realise that this is not the case for the many young people who enter the industry with no practical experience, and so require training. Tractors for example, are dangerous machines yet people without even a restricted car licence are often expected to drive one.

Young farmers or managers could quickly find themselves with a lot of responsibility. For example after a couple of years a sharemilker might be in charge of not only 500 cows but also staff which increases health and safety responsibilities and also liabilities.

OnFarmSafety is gathering data with the intention of eventually feeding the statistics it gathers to ACC or WorkSafe, sharing observations of trends behind farm accidents and death statistics. For example, new animal ID requirements appear to be leading to injuries from inserting tags in 18-month cattle.

“We’re seeing a few dairy farmers with black eyes after their heifers come home and are weighed, drenched and tagged in sub-standard yards with no suitable head-bales,” Bronwyn said.

Quad bike accidents have recently hit the headlines but the statistics have overlooked the thousands of riding hours clocked up by farm owners and staff, and also conditions including pitch dark, pouring rain and snow.

Over-represented in bike accidents and fatalities were over 50s who might not be nimble enough to get off a bike quickly and inexperienced teenage riders.

However, Bronwyn does not want to minimise the dreadful impact of farm accidents. Most farmers had been directly affected by dreadful injuries and deaths, within their own families or of neighbours and friends.

OnFarmSafety NZ is lobbying WorkSafe New Zealand to take a more flexible approach to some aspects of farm safety, where a farmer has a rigorous health and safety plan in place. For example, the Government agency had a non-negotiable rule that helmets must be worn on motorbikes. Yet, if a motorbike was being driven slowly behind stock for several hours in the middle of summer it might make more sense to wear a sunhat instead.

If a farmer recorded that this decision was made with an employee’s agreement, this should be acceptable, Bronwyn said.

“WorkSafe is telling farmers to do good risk assessment but then taking away their ability to make decisions tailored to their farm and circumstances.”

Bronwyn and her husband Phil, a FarmSafe NZ director, own two dairy farms near Eltham. They milk 240 cows on their family dairy farm and employ a sharemilker to milk 400 cows on a property they bought last year after selling a 6500 head sheep farm.

Normally, Taranaki does not suffer from large-scale farming events so being struck by drought this season had been a shock for many, she said. Rainfall on their own farms was as low of some of the worst-struck farms in Canterbury and they had been on once-a-day milking since January.

Rising stress levels in drought can be a health and safety hazard says Bronwyn, who is a Taranaki Rural Trust trustee. The trust has called together and is training volunteers, mostly in “peacetime activity” to build resilient communities able to withstand stressful times including drought.