Change in attitude to safety urged

18:59, Jan 02 2013
jager stand
Rob Jager believes farmers do not fully appreciate the consequences of a serious accident on the farm.

Workplace safety should be as important to farmers as the price of milk or wool, says the man heading New Zealand's taskforce on the subject.

Rob Jager, who chairs the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, said New Zealand's agricultural fatality rate of more than one a month last year was abysmal.

Serious injuries were occurring on farms every day and, coupled with the fatality rate, showed the poor state of agricultural safety in New Zealand.

The chairman of Shell New Zealand and general manager of Shell Todd Oil Services said farmers themselves did not seem to appreciate the consequences of a serious farm accident.

Farmers or others involved in agriculture were more at risk than people in most other industries and older farm workers were just as likely to injure or kill themselves as those who were young and inexperienced.

Fifteen farmers died at work last year.

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"So what are farmers doing differently. Have they learned the lessons from those deaths?" he said.

Complacency among farmers meant they often failed to see a farm injury or fatality as an opportunity to reassess the risks of farm work or to review their own practices.

"Do they step back and ask what happened and how can they change what happens on their own farm?"

Changing the attitude of farmers was inherently difficult and challenging because they often worked alone and tended to think no- one would find out about their short cuts or whether they wore helmets while riding their quad bikes.

He thought farmers should be highly motivated to ensure their farms were safe places to work because a serious injury or fatality would have a huge impact on their livelihoods - and the potential to put them out of business.

Often farms were one-man operations, so their business was even more at risk than most others.

"If a farmer is killed and he's the only guy running the farm, the work doesn't stop. What happens on that farm?"

Rather, farmers tended to downplay factors that caused accidents: "He can't farm," or "It couldn't happen here," or "He always was a stupid bugger."

While the risks of farming were many and varied, farmers did not often recognise or specify them. For example, they should be aware of the instability of quad bikes and of the - often familiar - farm hazards they encountered each day.

Checking up on farmers and imposing penalties would not change their culture.

"It's like drink-driving. There aren't enough police to check on everyone. It's not about being caught.

"Farmers who think that are missing the point."

While the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (Mobie) had a role in improving agricultural safety, farmers themselves needed to be more aware of the risks they faced and of their responsibilities for the safety of their families and their staff.

Federated Farmers had a useful role to play in improving health and safety on farms and countering the culture: "It's not going to happen to me."

Jager suggested Mobie and Federated Farmers could work more closely together to improve farm safety, as was already happening in Taranaki where a working party was focused on improving quad-bike safety on the province's farms.

He also suggested Fonterra had a role in better health and safety practices on farms because farmers were part of the company's supply chain.

A focus on farm health and safety could follow its environmental focus and its requirement for streams to be fenced by December 2013 as a condition of supply.

"There is an opportunity for companies like Fonterra to raise the bar and be clear about their expectations by levering their supply chain."

A range of new measures would collectively make a difference to the country's workplace health and safety- more inspectors, adjustments to outdated regulations and cultural and societal change.

"It's not about books on the shelf. It's about being aware of risks and talk about them."

Unique factors within industry were not barriers to health and safety. Construction, forestry, and fishing were hazardous occupations where safety also needed to improve, although some companies were already doing a fantastic job.

New Zealanders did not realise the country's poor safety performance was twice as bad as Australia and six times as bad as Britain.

"We're just not focused enough on workplace health and safety.

"It's not hard to take that extra care. It's about having that heightened awareness. If you're not aware of your surroundings, then you'll hurt yourself. Identify the hazards - every day."

Jager said health and safety was integral to the workplace, not an add-on.

"People need to see it's important. If they don't see it as important, nothing will change."

Taranaki Daily News