Don't ignore health and safety, farmers warned

READY TO GO: Registered rural contractor Damian Orchard, of Okaiawa, has fire extinguishers readily available in all his agricultural machinery.
ROBERT CHARLES/Fairfax NZ
READY TO GO: Registered rural contractor Damian Orchard, of Okaiawa, has fire extinguishers readily available in all his agricultural machinery.

Rural contractors are predicting demands for safety standards in the agricultural industry will increase to meet expectations from international markets.

While Rural Contractors New Zealand (RCNZ) is welcoming Government moves to improve workplace safety, president Steve Levet, of Warkworth, says getting farmers to see safety as a priority is a battle.

Levet says farmers need health and safety policies just as rural contractors do.

He wants farmers to hire registered contractors - even though there are only about 25 throughout the country and just two in Taranaki.

Okaiawa's Orchard Contracting is one of the two. Owner Damian Orchard - Taranaki representative on the RCNZ council - said he didn't think farmers appreciated the extent of their responsibility for health and safety.

"If they knew what they were liable for, they'd probably never let anyone on their farms - ever."

He believes Fonterra should require registration of veterinarians, milking machine companies, chemical applicators and others who supply services to dairy farmers.

"It's an issue that will be triggered when something goes wrong - then all hell will break loose. It's the wrong way to do it."

Orchard said the complexity of health and safety requirements was the biggest barrier to contractors seeking registration, even though RCNZ had engaged a specialist health and safety company to assist them.

"It's complicated - more so since Pike River."

He thought another reason contractors weren't seeking registration was that farmers did not demand it. Until there was an incentive for them to use registered contractors, most contracting businesses would not go through the registration process.

"But we all need to get up to speed. The rules are changing."

Levet predicts health and safety standards will feature increasingly in traceability of food because international markets will expect no harm to be done to people, animals and the environment during the production of New Zealand's food exports.

Levet said farmers should be more pro-active about health and safety and more aware of their responsibilities for people on their farms.

"A few are a bit cavalier and think health and safety doesn't affect them."

Farmers should identify hazards - for example, holes or tree stumps in paddocks and the location of electric fences - to rural contractors going on to their properties. "Whatever could pose a hazard to a contractor operating machinery needs to be identified.

"If something happens on their farm to people they're employing - whether directly or on a contract - farmers are liable.

"The fact that an injured person is a subcontractor doesn't absolve the farmer from health and safety obligations."

Levet said rural contractors also needed to be vigilant about safety at work, just as they were about maintaining their machinery. "Health and safety is the responsibility of all contractors, workers and their workmates and the farm businesses they are working for."

Like Orchard and Levet, RCNZ chief executive Roger Parton expects overseas markets will soon require organisations supplying services to farms to be registered.

"We'd like to see more contractors take it up. It's costly and many don't see the benefit at this stage, but it's good for the industry. It sets a benchmark and gives clients confidence they're using the appropriate people for the job they want done."

Farmers using the services of a registered contractor could be confident all statutory and regulatory obligations were being met.

Farming - alongside forestry, fishing, manufacturing and construction - was identified by the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety as a high-risk industry.

The Government, which developed its Working Safer package in response to the report, wants a 25 per cent reduction in workplace injury and death by 2020.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MOBIE) inspector Jo-Ann Pugh, of New Plymouth, said existing legislation required farmers to issue warnings about hazards that could cause serious harm.

They should take all practical steps to inform contractors of hazards and might have to restrict access to parts of the farm. They should have an effective system for responding to and managing hazards they identified, preferably by eliminating them, otherwise by isolating or minimising them. Hazards could be minimised by providing employees with protective clothing or equipment and monitoring their exposure to the hazard.

Pugh said farmers were not liable if anyone on their land without permission was harmed.

While registration demonstrated contractors' commitment to being the best they could be, MOBIE had no plans to require it. Its statistics on injuries on farms did not specify whether contractors were involved, she said.

Taranaki Federated Farmers president Harvey Leach says farmers need to bring themselves up to speed to ensure they have safety procedures in place for their staff, their visitors and for contractors working on their farms.

He says at least two businesses in Taranaki specialise in health and safety advice for farmers, who can also use Federated Farmers' health and safety policy as a template to develop their own on-farm plan. Another option is to ask farm consultants for help to prepare health and safety plans.

Leach urged farmers to find out what their liabilities were, even as he lamented farmers' loss of autonomy. "The more of these requirements we have to put in place, the more people are going to lose their common sense," he said.

Taranaki Daily News