Safety first: How one busi­ness is help­ing to spread the word

With a high num­ber of fa­tal ac­ci­dents still tak­ing place on farms, how can trac­tor safety be im­proved? Ricky French re­ports

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

We firmly be­lieve we have an obli­ga­tion – be­cause we at­tract so many peo­ple – to merge safety and lifestyle.

When Johno Hunter was grow­ing up on a farm in New South Wales he was driv­ing trac­tors from nine years of age. It was tough but fun work for a kid, swing­ing the trac­tor round the rows of grapevines, spray­ing the vine­yard, and help­ing out his dad. Some­times he’d need to jump off the trac­tor to move the drip ir­ri­ga­tion or open gates, and from that young age Hunter was taught the golden rule by his dad: turn the damn trac­tor off be­fore you jump down.

It wasn’t the only rule he learned. Hunter’s dad didn’t muck around where safety was con­cerned. You didn’t have a ra­dio or mu­sic in the cabin, and you had a good look round to see who was there be­fore you put it into gear. You took it slow. And if you didn’t lis­ten to what dad had to say there’d be hell to pay!

“I was a quick learner,” says Hunter. “I had to be, be­cause of how my dad was. He was pretty tough.”

Hunter now runs an 80-acre mixed-use farm near By­ron Bay called The Farm. It’s es­sen­tially an agri-tourism op­er­a­tion, pro­duc­ing com­mer­cial quan­ti­ties of eggs, pork, beef and veg­eta­bles. There’s an on-site restau­rant, bak­ery, pro­duce store and plant nurs­ery – in­de­pen­dent busi­nesses that sup­port The Farm’s pad­dock-to-plate model and play their part in The Farm’s phi­los­o­phy of “Grow, Feed, Ed­u­cate”.

Hunter says part of the aim is to pro­mote farm­ing to young peo­ple, to de­mys­tify the pro­cesses, and show the pub­lic where their food comes from and the jour­ney it goes on to get to their plate.

With more than 5,000 vis­i­tors a week and a mul­ti­tude of ac­tiv­i­ties oc­cur­ring si­mul­ta­ne­ously on any given day, safety is ab­so­lute para­mount. A sin­gle in­ci­dent could have cat­a­strophic flow-on ef­fects.

“We firmly be­lieve we have an obli­ga­tion – be­cause we at­tract so many peo­ple – to merge safety and lifestyle,” says Hunter. “Peo­ple in the lo­cal area turn to us for en­gage­ment; they see what we do. So we want to in­tro­duce peo­ple to sig­nif­i­cant is­sues like trac­tor safety.”

ED­U­CA­TION

With trac­tor deaths and se­ri­ous in­juries on farms still run­ning alarm­ingly high in Aus­tralia, Hunter’s ap­proach to mak­ing sure his farm is as safe as it pos­si­bly can be came down to the same ap­proach he takes ev­ery­where: ed­u­ca­tion.

A trac­tor safety work­shop was set-up last year on The Farm in

col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ki­oti Aus­tralia, which sup­plies its trac­tors.

Ki­oti’s ter­ri­tory man­ager Robert Wruck vis­ited The Farm and ran the work­shop. Par­tic­i­pants in­cluded all four in­de­pen­dent farm­ers who op­er­ate on the site, plus other em­ploy­ees and mem­bers of the pub­lic. Hobby farms are a pop­u­lar lifestyle choice in the north­ern NSW hin­ter­land, but with that comes risk, es­pe­cially around heavy ma­chin­ery.

“The frus­trat­ing thing is any­one can walk into a dealer and buy any pow­ered trac­tor they want,” says Hunter. “There’s no cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process, and for the driver there’s no ‘L’ or ‘P’ plates or any real safety in­struc­tion.”

The work­shop cov­ered is­sues such as check­ing a trac­tor’s op­er­a­tional ca­pac­ity – which sounds rou­tine and bor­ing but is ac­tu­ally one of the most im­por­tant thing to do, given how many ac­ci­dents hap­pen when driv­ing trac­tors out­side of their specs – plus safety fea­tures such as rollover pro­tec­tion struc­tures (ROPS), seat­belts, how to safely put at­tach­ments or a front-end loader on and off, and the im­por­tance of turn­ing the trac­tor off be­fore you jump off, just like Hunter’s dad drummed into him.

“It’s about re­duc­ing those risks to start with,” says Hunter. “You can jump on a trac­tor a thou­sand times and think you know your op­er­a­tion, but the big thing is to not get com­pla­cent.”

CUL­TURAL CHASM

Safe Work Aus­tralia’s Ex­plor­ing the Ex­pe­ri­ence of Fam­ily

Farm­ers in­sights re­port, re­leased in April this year, re­vealed an il­lu­mi­nat­ing pic­ture of some of the safety at­ti­tudes that per­me­ate through Aus­tralian farms. It spoke of “cul­tur­ally in­her­ited val­ues driv­ing be­hav­iour,” which is to say be­hav­iour learned from par­ents and passed onto their chil­dren. It’s ex­actly the thing that hap­pened to Hunter, only he was lucky in that his fa­ther was strict on safety. Not ev­ery­one’s dad is.

A key in­sight from the study was that farm­ers think about “plan­ning their work in terms of com­mon sense and aren’t con­duct­ing haz­ard iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­cesses be­fore start­ing work.” Many farm­ers quoted in the study said they re­lied heav­ily on com­mon sense to man­age safety.

It’s some­thing Vic­to­rian Farm­ers Fed­er­a­tion (VFF) farm safety ex­ten­sion of­fi­cer Richard Ver­stee­gen would like to see change.

VFF run some­thing sim­i­lar to The Farm’s trac­tor safety work­shop – a farm safety walk, where they visit Vic­to­rian farms and lit­er­ally take a walk with the farmer, iden­ti­fy­ing and ad­dress­ing risks and haz­ards they may en­counter along the way.

“We get them to talk about things that worry them re­gard­ing safety and we try to take a sys­tem­atic ap­proach. We’ll look at things such as si­los, heights, dos­ing from the ground and of course trac­tors and ma­chin­ery,” he says.

Ver­stee­gen says it’s im­por­tant farm­ers are aware that ac­ci­dents could hap­pen to them, and to con­sider the con­se­quences should they do. “Talk­ing with farm­ers it’s clear some have got this belief that it’s not go­ing to hap­pen to me – older farm­ers es­pe­cially. They think their com­mon sense will look af­ter their safety,” he says. “Un­for­tu­nately, last year on Vic­to­rian farms there were 14 fa­tal­i­ties, and most were older than 55. They were farm­ers who thought they had com­mon sense.”

Ver­stee­gen wants to see farm­ers plan for safety bet­ter, be­fore they start a job. “We need farm­ers to recog­nise red flags for safety. It might be you’re fa­tigued, or you’re work­ing alone. The rem­edy could be as sim­ple as tak­ing a break and drink­ing some water,” he says.

The good news, ac­cord­ing to Ver­stee­gen, is that trac­tors are a lot safer than they used to be, with the ad­di­tion of ROPS, seat­belts, and hy­draulics re­plac­ing power take-off (PTO) guards. But it’s how you use the equip­ment that is the im­por­tant fac­tor:

It’s about re­duc­ing those risks to start with. You can jump on a trac­tor a thou­sand times and think you know your op­er­a­tion, but the big thing is to not get com­pla­cent.

The right equip­ment for the right task, and used with the de­sign spec­i­fi­ca­tions of that equip­ment is crit­i­cal for safety.

“The right equip­ment for the right task, and used with the de­sign spec­i­fi­ca­tions of that equip­ment, is crit­i­cal for safety. Many in­ci­dents oc­cur be­cause of peo­ple im­pro­vis­ing with the wrong piece of equip­ment,” he says.

So what does this mean for farm­ers in prac­tice? It means tak­ing a few min­utes to think care­fully about the task you’re about to per­form with your trac­tor, or other piece of heavy ma­chin­ery. What is the load ca­pac­ity and what gra­di­ent will you be work­ing on? If you get a block­age will you re­mem­ber to shut the trac­tor down com­pletely so there’s no move­ment? Will you lower your raised im­ple­ments be­fore you work on them?

It’s these sort of ques­tions Ver­stee­gen wants farm­ers to ask them­selves through­out the day as they go about what they may con­sider to be mun­dane ac­tiv­i­ties.

“The mes­sage has been the same for a long time. It’s not as though peo­ple are in­vent­ing new ways of in­jur­ing them­selves when us­ing this type of equip­ment,” Ver­stee­gen says.

BACK ON THE FARM

Back at The Farm, Hunter is pre­par­ing to run an­other trac­tor safety work­shop, to be held to­wards the end of this year. He’s de­ter­mined to pur­sue a pro-ac­tive ap­proach to safety and he wants other farm­ers to do the same.

“It’s about be­ing pos­i­tive. It’s not a scare tac­tic; we’re not scream­ing about how dan­ger­ous trac­tors are, it’s about get­ting that con­ver­sa­tion started, not push­ing a dog­matic view about how you should do things,” he ex­plains.

Hunter says he’s the first to ad­mit to some­times be­ing too proud to ask for help or ad­vice. “The work­shop is about rais­ing is­sues so that trac­tor safety is at the fore­front of peo­ple’s minds when they go back to their farm. We make it a com­fort­able at­mos­phere,” he notes.

Whether full-scale cul­tural change around safety is­sues in farm­ing is re­quired is open to de­bate, but what’s cer­tainly true is that the in­dus­try doesn’t face the same rig­or­ous reg­u­la­tion of sim­i­larly dan­ger­ous in­dus­tries such as trans­port and con­struc­tion. Farm­ers are more of­ten than not self­em­ployed, re­spon­si­ble for only a small work­force, if any, and not sub­ject to in­tense safety scru­tiny.

Ver­stee­gen says the sec­tor can learn a thing or two from in­dus­tries that have a more sys­tem­atic ap­proach to safety.

“We re­cently ran a farm safety walk where the fam­ily who were farm­ing the land men­tioned they had re­cently put on a young fel­low who came from the con­struc­tion in­dus­try and was very switched on with safety. He high­lighted a whole lot of safety is­sues for the farm and was very clear about what was safe and what was not,” he says.

With farm­ing mak­ing up just 2 per cent of the work­force but 21 per cent of worker fa­tal­i­ties it’s clear that change of some kind is needed in the way the in­dus­try man­ages safety.

An­other thing that is clear is that there’s no sil­ver bul­let. It also means farm­ers don’t have to look far out­side their own farm gate for the an­swers. The best ideas are of­ten the sim­plest. A work­shop, a farm walk – any­thing to get the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing and the brain en­gaged. Don’t be too proud to ask for help.

“There shouldn’t be one per­son dy­ing on trac­tors,” says Hunter. “I’m for­tu­nate that I can re­it­er­ate the good safety mes­sages my dad gave me, but in a dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion style to his. It’s vi­tal. We only get one crack at this.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

• Take a few min­utes to think care­fully about the task you’re about to per­form with your trac­tor, or other piece of heavy ma­chin­ery

• What is the load ca­pac­ity and what gra­di­ent will you be

work­ing on?

• If you get a block­age will you re­mem­ber to shut the trac­tor

down com­pletely so there’s no move­ment?

• Will you lower your raised im­ple­ments be­fore you work on

them?

With more than 5,000 vis­i­tors a week, safety is ab­so­lutely para­mount to agri-tourism busi­ness The Farm

Above: The Farm ran a trac­tor safety work­shop last year in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ki­oti Aus­tralia

Above: From a very early age The Farm’s Johno Hunter was taught the rules for safely op­er­at­ing trac­tors by his safe­ty­con­scious dadIn­set: Hunter was al­ways taught to have a good look round to see who was there be­fore you put it into gear

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