Farming is a dangerous business. And, despite a concerted effort to lessen the number of accidents, the fatalities keep coming. Susan Edmunds looks at what manufacturers and the powers that be are doing to change that.
Farm accidents are expensive, whether you count the financial cost of medical expenses, the hassle of forced time off work or the human cost of injury. But farming representatives say government plans to impose rules and regulations on agricultural practices and equipment are unrealistic. In many cases, education initiatives simply are not working.
There have been a number of safety campaigns run over recent years but they have had seemingly little effect on the number of serious and fatal agricultural injuries. The rate of on-farm fatalities remains hardly changed at roughly 20 a year over recent years.
In 2010, there were 312 serious injuries recorded in the farming sector, up 15 percent on the year before. Eighteen fatalities were reported by the Department of Labour in the industry. And, at the end of September, 12 had already been reported for 2011.
The agricultural industry is over-represented in the workplace harm statistics. Farms employ more than 114,000 people full-time. But construction, which employs about 171,000 people, only reported five deaths last year.
Federated Farmers spokesman David Rose says it’s fair to question farm safety. “We are up there in the statistics.” But he says it was unrealistic to aim to get the number of injuries to zero because of the nature of the industry, and the fact that accidents were, by definition, “unexpected, unintentional and unlucky”.
Farmers worked whatever the weather, often alone, with unpredictable animals, machinery and vehicles, battling fatigue caused by long hours.
But the Department of Labour is taking aim at the industry again this year. A spokeswoman said the department had released a National Action Agenda, focusing on the five employment sectors where most harm was occurring, including agriculture. The action plan for the agricultural section outlined a series of actions to reduce the death and injury tolls in the sector.
Rose said while those kinds of moves were well-intentioned, most were not getting through to farmers. “Like saying you have to wear a seatbelt on a tractor – it’s good to have it for when you need it but when you are going to drive for a minute, then get out to open a gate, then drive for another minute. It’s not practical.”
Rose says farm safety messages needed to be the kind that would prompt lasting change, and had to relate to real-life situations. “The best campaigns are ones that farmers hear the message, think ‘yep, absolutely, I’ve been there and should have changed something’. If we can get a permanent change in the way things happen, that’s good.”
One of the culprits most commonly fingered in farm deaths is the ubiquitous quad bike. Several attempts have been made to bring down the number of ATV deaths but the Department of Labour admits that its quad bike safety campaigns in 2007 and 2008 made little difference to the number of injuries recorded. It was now planning to take a firmer approach, a spokeswoman said.
Between 2009 and 2010, ATV injuries declined 13 percent but the number of fatalities remained constant at five. Three had been recorded to the end of September this year.
Quad bikes are getting more powerful, which means they can tow bigger loads but also achieve higher speeds and can be harder for inexperienced drivers to handle. Honda now issues free helmets with its ATVs and supplies DVDs to new owners. It says the demand for ATV safety training has increased. And many other manufacturers like Yamaha are moving towards safer, enclosed ATVs known as Side x Sides.
The Department of Labour spokeswoman said it was running another campaign and this time it would use its enforcement powers because research had shown farmers were aware of what they could do to prevent accidents, but were not doing it. “To date we’ve visited more than 400 farms across the country and issued more than 120 enforcement notices.”
The push is for everyone using an ATV to wear a helmet because the department says 40 percent of farm quad bike accidents investigated over recent years involved some level of head injury. Its inspectors have the power to issue warning notices to quad bike users not wearing a helmet.
But Rose said again that was impractical. “When you are relying on a helmet, the accident is already happening.”
He said the focus needed to shift to prevention of accidents. A lot of the time, people were working long hours, alone, and were not able to make decisions as well as they normally would.
Federated Farmers was pushing messages about slowing down and taking time to consider decisions. Rose said: “Use the four by two rule: Take four steps back and two minutes to think about it.”
Farm workers should get adequate training and farmers should make sure they knew what they were doing before they were sent out alone.
Unlike a factory environment, where a machinist could be given an induction and shown how to do their specific job, farm workers would be doing something different every day, and have to have skills across a range of areas. Rose said: “It’s not as simple as saying ‘here’s your job, we’ll get someone to show you what to do’.”
Farmers should assess their workers’ abilities and make sure they knew they could call for help if they needed it.
Rose said farmers were adopting safety messages where it worked in with their everyday lives. He had recently seen new statistics from ACC that showed the number of claims relating to hearing loss had dropped dramatically to about a fifth of what they were the year before. He said part of that was because the criteria had been made tougher but it was also because earmuff manufacturers were producing a product that was much easier to wear, and farmers knew they had to protect their hearing.
“People generally do wear earmuffs now, they are more practical and comfortable than they were.”
One of the problems facing farmers was complacency, Rose says. “You could do something hundreds of times with no problem but the one time there is a problem, there is a serious accident.”
Unlike in some other industries, there was always the potential for danger, he said. But he said it was a bit like road safety. While you could work to educate drivers to reduce the crash rate, it was inevitable that every so often, an accident would happen.
Prevention’s better than a cure
Farm equipment manufacturers are putting an ever-increasing emphasis on safety, industry experts say.
Paul Stewart, events and ATV training manager for Blue Wing Honda, says employers were becoming more conscious of the need for staff to be fully trained in the use of their work tools. His company had run a safety programme over the past two decades and, while farmers were sometimes resistant to safety messages, progress was being made.
“We have, for the past 16 years or more, worked closely with Agribusiness Training, which provides training in the safe operation of tractors, four-by-fours, chemicals, chainsaws.”
He says Honda pushed for all ATV purchasers to use a helmet, and subsidised a training course. More than a million helmets had been given away to buyers.
“Because it’s got four wheels, and you can’t fall off it, an ATV has an inherent safety feel about it. Inexperienced people get on and away they go. They don’t realise it’s rider active and they have to move their body weight.”
He says everyone should get adequate training in the operation of ATVs, children should not be allowed to drive them, people should follow the advice on manufacturers’ safety labels and always use the right gear for the job.
Stewart says Honda was fully supportive of the Department of Labour’s moves to crackdown on aspects of farm safety, including the clampdown on ATVs.
Husqvarna’s Daniel Chima says his company had a focus on user safety. “One of the many things the company is doing is the introduction of the trio brake on selected chainsaws.”
Chain brakes are a relatively recent thing – introduced over the past 10 years or so – but this takes them a step further. Chima says with a traditional chain brake, where the user had to push a lever towards the chain with their front hand, there was a chance that they could miss and cut themselves, or not do it fast enough and get kickback.
With a trio brake, there were three ways to stop the chain: with a rear handle on the chainsaw, through inertia operating the brake when the chainsaw kicked back with a certain velocity, and with the traditional front-brake method. He said safety authorities in New Zealand were so impressed with the trio brake they wanted it to become mainstream, but the idea was patented to Husqvarna.
Chima says a chainsaw was one of the few pieces of machinery freely available for purchase with the ability to easily kill someone. Husqvarna had improved its other equipment, with cut-off switches on all mowers, mechanisms that stopped the mower’s engine if someone let go of the handles, and sensors that would cut a motor if there was no weight on a ride-on mower’s driver’s seat. Husqvarna’s ride-on mowers also required the rider to make a conscious decision to put the machine into reverse, with a key switch, to encourage the person to look behind them to double-check.
This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.