‘We’re killing too many people, and it has to stop’

James Nason, 24/02/2017

Agriculture’s workplace fatality rate is almost eight-times the national industry average. Why are we dragging the chain on such a critical issue?


Horses and cattle cause more injuries on Australian farms each year than any other factor, according to the same report. Image: Care Flight

Horses and cattle cause more injuries on Australian farms each year than any other factor, according to the same report. Image: Care Flight


Know someone who was killed in a farm accident?

It is a question that unfortunately many people in rural Australia will be able to answer from direct, gut-wrenching experience.

As I write this, the faces of many good people come to mind – hard-working, easy-going, intelligent, funny, heart-warming, do-anything-for-you kind of people – the type of people who make agriculture a wonderful place to live and work.

People who walked away from their homes and families one morning not realising they would never return, their lives abruptly cut short by farm accidents involving horses, cattle, utes, quad bikes, machinery failures, helicopters, falls from heights, workshop disasters, fuel drums, electrocutions – the list goes on.

Agriculture has many potential dangers.

But why do we as a community appear to accept that farm accidents and deaths are inevitable, when, in reality, many are preventable?

The fatality data says it all.

Agriculture employs just 2.6 percent of Australia’s workforce.

However, it accounts for 21 percent of all worker fatalities in Australia.

While other industries such as mining have dramatically lowered their accident rates – proving that safety is a problem than can be fixed – agriculture lags well behind.

This is not to say agriculture is not improving. Between 2003 and 2014, the fatality rate for agricultural workers fell by 24 per cent (from 16.6 to 12.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers). Farm safety campaigns and efforts by many farmers are having some impact.

But in the same period, the fatality rate for all industries fell by 41 per cent (from 2.7 to 1.6) – this data from Safework Australia.

Agriculture can and should be doing better.

Our fatality rate is almost eight-times the national industry average. Why are we dragging the chain on such a critical issue?

It’s a question we have been discussing in depth with a range of people in agriculture lately. Here are some of the thoughts that have been relayed to us:

There is more to farm safety than quad bike accidents alone:

Quad bikes have become the flashpoint of the farm safety debate, perhaps understandable given they have become a leading cause of accidental death and severe injury on farms in recent years.

Some of Australia’s largest pastoral companies have told us that statistics can no longer be ignored and they have now banned the use of quad bikes on their properties altogether, in favour of side-by-sides or two-wheelers.

However other major pastoral companies told us that when they analysed quad bike accident data, they found that serious injuries or fatalities were very limited when quads were operated as they were designed to be. For this reason, they continue to use quads, in conjunction with safety procedures, protective devices and training programs.

See a headline about farm safety these days and you can almost guarantee it will be focused on quad bikes. There is an apparent disproportionate fixation on quad bikes in media articles and Government campaigns about farm safety that tends to overshadow other important messages.

The vehicle involved in the highest number of agricultural fatalities in Australia, according to SafeWork Australia’s 2016 farm safety report, is the tractor, accounting for 27 percent, followed by quads (21pc), aircraft (19pc) cars or utes (12pc) and trucks (8pc).

Horses and cattle cause more injuries on Australian farms each year than any other factor, according to the same report.

Farms are not just work sites but homes and places of recreation:

Agriculture has unique challenges when it comes to curbing accident rates not shared by other industries.

Statistics assigned to agriculture don’t generally differentiate between on-farm accidents that occurred while people were at work or at play, or whether they involved farm workers or visitors.

This can make agriculture’s safety record look even worse in comparison to other industries.

The lines may be blurred, but no injury or fatality on a farm is “okay”. The challenge for farmers is harder, but the essential message is that they are obliged to provide a safe environment 24-7.

Accidents will happen. Equipment can fail. People will make mistakes. We don’t always recognise risks or hazards in our way. It’s part of being human. For these reasons a target of zero accidents across agriculture is not realistic. But nor is believing safety will improve if it isn’t proactively targeted.

There is a disparity in the approach to safety among farming operations:

Farm safety consultants also point to a difference in attitudes between farms.

In short, some take safety seriously, some don’t.

Drive around a professional farming operation today, and you will see the results of a decade or more of targeted investment focused on improved farm safety – clear signage, well-defined operating procedures, good quality gear.

But it is more than that. You can have all the signs and manuals in the world, but still have the same number of accidents.

The key test is this: are the behaviours actually different? Have, after a decade of trying to fix this problem, farm owners and staff taken a different attitude towards risk in the way they do their job every day?

It could be argued that earlier farm safety campaigns in the 1990s failed to achieve much because their focus at the end of the day was more about “covering backsides”, ticking boxes to avoid prosecution, rather than actually changing cultures and creating genuinely safer operating environments.

The pathway toward lowering accident rates is changing actual behaviours and attitudes toward risk. Farmers and their workers will do anything to stop animals from perishing. When they are as proud of their approach to the safety and welfare of their people as they are about the safety and welfare of their stock, you’re really getting somewhere.

A lack of awareness of legal obligations:

It is also about complying with legislation.

All farms, big and small, operate under the same workplace legislation in each state.

By law, all farms are required to have documented approaches to identifying hazards and mitigating against risks. They are also supposed to provide safety inductions for everyone who enters their worksite.

Those that don’t can face a savage double blow in the event of a workplace tragedy. Not only must they deal with the trauma and aftermath of such an accident, they can also face crippling fines or even jail time for failing to have met their basic duty of care.

A trade-off between safety and economics:

Satisfying legal obligations can involve expense. For many farms, it can come down to a trade-off between safety and economics.

But arguing to workplace investigators after an accident that providing a safe workplace was too expensive, is unlikely to be a defendable position.

Nobody at a funeral resulting from a farm accident would care about the cost if they could have prevented it.

What can we do to make our workplaces safer?

In reality the people best-placed to understand where the biggest risks lie on any farm are the farm owners or managers themselves. No one knows their properties as well as they do.

Here are some useful questions farm safety consultants ask producers to help them pinpoint danger hotspots:

Is there anything on your farm – a piece of equipment, a certain place, a job that has to be done by someone on the farm – that you wouldn’t let your own kids near?


Put yourself in a scenario where the phone has just rung, and the person on the other end tells you there has just been a really bad accident here on your farm. What place does your mind go to?

After answering these questions, farm owners and managers can take accountability by ensuring that what they identified is included on their current work lists, things that from a safety point of view need to get fixed.

‘A fierce culture of independence’:

“There is a fierce independent culture in the farming community that the Government isn’t allowed to tell us what to do,” one large agricultural company manager said during a recent conversation about farm safety.

“But at the end of the day, we’re killing too many people, and it has to stop.”

In 2017, Australian agriculture has to be honest with itself and acknowledge that its safety record is far behind other industries.

Improving safety is not somebody else’s problem. The responsibility to do better lies with each and every one of us.





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  1. Keith Gammel, 12/03/2017

    Talking about numbers: in 2015 the were 1209 people killed in road accidents. With a motor vehicle park of 18 million this results of 0.07 road deaths per 1000 vehicles. Quad bikes account 23 fatalities with an stimated park of 250000 quad bikes. Ratio is 0.09 per 1000 quad bikes, 30% higher. Road vehicles include many safety features such as seatbelts, airbags, traction control, rollbar’s, etc… Quad bikes include NONE of them. Is not to blame the farmer but the manufacturers, who should implement safety systems and engineering solutions before placing their products in the market

  2. Darrell Knight, 27/02/2017

    The Australian Bureau of Statistics report on all deaths for 2015 (released 28 Sept 2016) paints the real 2015 picture in full, not just the snippets pulled out to sensationalise any one particular topic. Having said that, here’s another perspective supported by fact…
    2,474 people died from falls, just getting it wrong and falling over,
    1,192 people died from accidental poisoning,
    1,383 people died in all transport accidents,
    710 of those died in cars,
    265 people died from assault,
    252 people died from Medical ‘care’ complications,
    189 pedestrians died,
    184 people drowned,
    41 people died from boats / watercraft,
    37 people died on a bicycle,
    34 people died in aircraft accidents,
    22 people died on ATV (quad bikes)
    Australian Farmers appear within all of those above numbers and this very huge one…
    3,027 people committed Suicide.
    The conduct of financial institutions might play an incredibly significant part in how many farmers die, if compared to the humble quad bike. Are there any studies into if the quad bike is the safest machine in history to ever tackle so many jobs throughout the farming sector? As per other comments here, safer than horses, tractors, two wheel motorbikes, utes etc. Even compared to walking on foot and falling over, Quad Bikes may be the biggest safety improvement for farm work tasks that we’ve seen in decades! but we don’t see that reported too often. How many farmers lives has the quad bike saved compared to every other way they could go about their business in a tough working environment?
    Inversely, imagine the safety result if 300,000 farmers got rid of their quad bikes and all went back to using horses or tractors for everything? Why blame the vehicle?
    Profitability, economic pressure, staff issues, (3027 suicides)…
    It’s not rational that quad bikes get a mention in almost every farm safety article. Compared to all deaths, quad bikes surely struggle to be significant. ABS stats reveal that more than ten times that number of people deliberately kill each other every year, and ten times as many people die from medical ‘care’. We’ve already mentioned 3,027 suicides! Where has our Duty of Care ‘Due Diligence’ gone if we keep getting hung up on 0.01% of the problem? (22 quad bike deaths out of Australia’s 159,052 total deaths is 0.01%). Might it be more responsible to focus on just about anything else in the 99.99% of all other Australian deaths.
    Lets not blame the rock that one farmer tripped on. By all means, continue looking into why he was doing back to back 13 hour days in the paddock by himself. And take a broad look into the financials and profitability within the agricultural sector so they might build the strength to address the real issues like any other healthy business.

    Nobody is denying the seriousness of the mental health and suicide issue in the bush, Darrell. But surely that does not mean that we should prioritise it over WH&S, as the only issue worthy of writing about. Editor

  3. Dave Heath, 27/02/2017

    Agree with comments, thus far. Another ‘hidden’ danger is the far too often compliancy with Ag chemicals, weed-sprays and poisons. Here the rule must over-ride the common sense approach.
    Good article James.

  4. Jacqueline Curley, 26/02/2017

    I agree with all of the above. WH and safety has also become a major business within itself and I would go so far as to say the wheel of accountability has turned too far in some industries because of the profitability factor of the safety industry. This brings the low profit margin in ag industries into full focus. Low profits relate to fewer staff. If government officials create more positions to regulate agriculture it will be on a user pays basis which will compound the issue. Sections of the ag industry with safety committees comprised of the actual family farm and corporate segregations via % is needed to represent the entire farming communities. By this I mean 1 vote one value. This information is available via census I would think. In this instance safety programs must be written by the people who actually work hands on within individual ag industries

  5. Adam Coffey, 25/02/2017

    I couldn’t think of anything worse than the agricultural industry heading the way the resources industry has gone – over regulated to the point that each employee is not expected to think for themselves. This in itself kills ingenuity which leads to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit which is how agriculture was born & continues to develop.
    I agree with the comments above & as a family business can relate to a lack of profitability causing labour shortages which ultimately cuts corners to get the job done.
    But we also operate in an inherently risky environment. I agree that many farm injuries can be avoided through common sense but you are far more likely to get hurt by a rogue cow than a laptop or a desk chair.
    Making farms more profitable is the key here & then maybe we can mitigate some of the safety risks through increased labour per production unit. Simple right?

  6. Kristen Coggan, 25/02/2017

    Great article. The constant comparison in the media between agriculture and mining is like apples to oranges in my opinion. I currently work in the Ag industry in a WH&S role. I have also worked in the mining industry, specifically explosives. Two very different approaches are taken due to the differences in the jobs and tasks. The decision makers need to engage with the Ag industry in a more proactive, approachable manner, and not just with “The big boys”. Smaller operations are a wealth of knowledge and understand from different perspective which is invaluable.

  7. John Gray, 24/02/2017

    A big step in the right direction is stop the situation where it is so easy to blame someone else for what happen. Make it that a person is responsible for their own actions. People need to get back to thinking for themselves.

    As of the comment above that “Agriculture is inherently dangerous workplace even at the best of times” would be the biggest load of bovine waste I have ever heard. It does not matter were you work, whether it be agriculture, mining, aviation, shop assistant or what ever your job is, Your workplace is only as dangerous as YOU let it get.
    Let me give a perfect example, while mustering on a SW Qld cattle station as a mustering pilot, a station hand on a motor bike who was assigned to tail the mob along seen a dingo on a sand ridge, and decided on his own behalf to give chase, this ended up in him coming of the motor bike causing a bad knee injury and him being hospitalised and on workers comp for sometime. Was this an accident?? NO. It was nothing more than pure stupidity, if fact I will go as far as saying that person should not have been eligible for workers comp . Was the station owners responsible for what happened, NO, Was the station manager responsible for what happened, NO, The only person responsible for the outcome of that situation was the person themselves. This is only one of the situations that I know of, I could probably compile a book on the subject, and I bet a lot of other people could tell of a few situations similar that have been too quickly filed in the so-called “farm accident box”.

    So how about we get rid of the “knee-jerk reactionists” who fail to be able to think laterally with common sense, and let the genuine people who have actual real life experience and wisdom work it out.

  8. charles nason, 24/02/2017

    Beef Central thank you for initiating a very important conversation
    John has isolated one important factor in that most farms are understaffed – one man ( or woman ) is doing the work of two and two are doing the work of three etc so when a accident happens there is no resilience or back up
    Agriculture is inherently a dangerous workplace even under the best of times . Cattle simply have a very unfair weight advantage .
    The most dangerous things in the bush are unloaded guns and quiet horses !
    We need to ask that if we were more profitable and could employ more staff , would we be less accident prone – I would argue so
    Thus are we addressing the symptom ( accidents ) and forgetting the real cause – lack of adequate profitability?
    What else can we do ? Well breed and select for temperament . How many studs select for flight speed ? not many!
    Worker comp data for work related claims indicates that horses are far more dangerous than 2 wheel bikes which are far more dangerous than quads . Where are the courses for safe use of horses?
    If our accident rate was in any other industry there would be a Royal Commission set up – agriculture is simply the poor relation

  9. John Mohr-Bell, 24/02/2017

    One of the problems a lot of farmers face is employing staff with all the extra regulations put on us. The cost of these may be affordable to other industries, such as the mining industry who enjoy a better profitability, but in our case a lot of times we shrink away from all these new requisites, and will probably resist employing staff. The risks of regulatory persecution, litigation, etc. to some, outweigh that very necessary extra hand. What then happens is the farm is under staffed, and when accidents happen, caused by stress and over worked minds that are not focused on the job at hand, are also on their own. Another set of hands would have changed this scenario. No solutions here, just stating a fact.

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