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