OPINION: A year has passed since New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act came into force and in that time, we have seen the issue of effective health and safety management really come to the fore in New Zealand farming communities.
There has certainly been a step change in awareness about the importance of good health and safety on the farm. It’s encouraging to see the tone of conversation gradually turning from concern and, at times, hostility, to something very different.
Over the past year, farmers have learned to separate the reality from the many myths which sprang up around the legislation.
Many farmers now accept an inspector’s job isn’t telling them how to farm, but to help them be sure they are recognising and managing risks that may cause an injury to them, a family member, worker or visitor.
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Many now recognise the requirements are about helping, not hampering farming. Farmers countrywide are getting to grips with what effective risk management really looks like and recognising that it’s simply good business practice.
Momentum has steadily built in the agricultural sector. Leading agricultural businesses and organisations, such as Beef + Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ, Landcorp, Ospri and FMG have really stepped up and thrown their weight behind this.
The Agricultural Leaders Health and Safety Action Group is also developing and embarking on an exciting programme of work. If the weight of involvement continues, and there is real commitment and passion out there for the benefits this brings to farming, then accident rates in the sector will drop.
International experience shows that any change will take time and WorkSafe’s Safer Farms programme has always been and continues to be a long-term behaviour change campaign. We are committed to supporting the rural sector to change behaviour and attitudes and reduce the number of accidents and fatalities.
As with any programme of change, people are adapting at a varying pace. There were early adopters and others who needed a bit of time to get their heads around what it entailed. Some have requested voluntary WorkSafe inspections of their farms, to give them a steer on what they are doing well and if there are any areas they can brush up on.
However, there are also still many farmers out there who see prevention of harm as a ‘compliance’ issue and are doing the bare minimum they can to meet the requirements of the law.
Simply complying will not change health and safety outcomes on a farm. Recognising the importance of managing risk and making that part and parcel of everything you do on your farm will.
There is no point in putting in place a ‘paper based’ system such as a risk register and accident register and never implementing it, because that won’t make anything safer or healthier. For those who are still saying “we’ve always done things this way and never come to harm”, that complacency is a risk in itself.
From not wearing safety belts in tractors to using vehicles outside their operating parameters, people continue to run the risks because they’ve “never had a problem”.
Tragically, statistics show many accidents happen during precisely those routine tasks people have done many times before.
Then there are the behaviours that may not have an immediate impact but can catch up with you in time in terms of health outcomes – such as not wearing the correct safety equipment when dealing with chemicals.
When we developed the Safer Farms programme in conjunction with the rural sector, we wanted to make clear to farmers that preventing harm is not a hard thing to do. Our first priority has been to make sure there is a lot of support out there to help farmers to make the changes.
Along with Beef + Lamb and DairyNZ, the likes of Horticulture NZ, NZ Wine and Federated Farmers are taking a positive role and assisting farmers with great information and tools.
Safer Farms provides a wide range of resources, from our Keep Safe, Keep Farming toolkit, containing a wide range of templates and information, to plain English fact sheets setting out just what you need to know on a wide range of issues from wire strike risk to managing visitors to farms.
I’d encourage those farmers who haven’t yet taken the first steps to improving health and safety on their farms to consider three things.
First, it’s recognising that it’s not about compliance, it’s about being safe.
Second, that it’s not just about health and safety; it’s about your business as a whole.
Third, there’s a lot more to your business than you. There’s your family, any workers you may employ and the contractors and businesses that interact with your business. Talking about workplace risks and how to avoid or deal with them is the key to everyone being safe and healthy.
Taking the time to evaluate where you stand in these three areas is vital if we are to address the 23,000 plus ACC claims each year, not to mention the 20 families whose daughter, son, mother or father didn’t come home from working on a farm each year.
The rate hasn’t been decreasing and it is clear a different approach is needed on farms. That different approach will only happen if there is a change in perspective about what causes harm and how to deal with it.
Al McCone is the agriculture programme manager of WorkSafe New Zealand.