Safety sum­mons: Ac­tion needed to im­prove farm safety

Re­cent im­prove­ments in farm safety ap­pear to have stalled, pro­mot­ing key stake­hold­ers to call for re­newed ac­tion to re­duce the high rate of in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties, Ricky French re­ports

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

Agri­cul­ture is Aus­tralia’s most dan­ger­ous in­dus­try, mak­ing up nearly a quar­ter of all work­place fa­tal­i­ties. To date, 27 peo­ple have died this year. While the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try makes up just 2 per cent of Aus­tralia’s work­force, it suf­fers 21 per cent of work­place fa­tal­i­ties. Since 2014 alone, 320 peo­ple have lost their lives on farms, of which 89 were killed by farm ma­chin­ery or plant.

While quad bike fa­tal­i­ties and in­juries have soared in re­cent years, trac­tors still re­main one of the most dan­ger­ous pieces of equip­ment, ac­count­ing for more than 16 per cent of non­in­ten­tional farm deaths. In 2017 there were more deaths caused by mo­bile plant ma­chin­ery than quad bikes.

An in-depth re­view by the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s AgHealth Aus­tralia unit showed that be­tween 2001 and 2016 there were 204 trac­tor-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties on Aus­tralian farms, of which 56 per cent were run-over in­ci­dents and 33 per cent rollover ac­ci­dents. Roughly two-thirds, or 68 per cent, of fa­tal­i­ties were peo­ple aged over 55.

While the good news is the long-term trend with trac­tor-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties is down­wards, the bad news is the im­prove­ment seems to have stalled, with the num­ber and rate of fa­tal­i­ties re­main­ing rel­a­tively un­changed over the past 16 years.

In the early 1980s Aus­tralia was see­ing in ex­cess of 30 trac­tor­re­lated deaths a year; 70 per cent of those from rollovers. Ed­u­ca­tion, im­proved tech­nol­ogy and man­u­fac­tur­ing stan­dards, as well as leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing rollover pro­tec­tion struc­tures (ROPS), has re­duced that num­ber sig­nif­i­cantly, such that run-overs are now more com­mon than rollovers. It’s es­ti­mated that 80 per cent of trac­tors in Aus­tralia now have ROPS fit­ted, and that 70 per cent of rollover deaths oc­curred on trac­tors with­out ROPS.

AgHealth rec­om­mends trac­tors with­out ROPS be re­moved from ser­vice or have ROPS retro­fit­ted.

Al­though no data is avail­able, anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests that seat­belts are rarely worn by trac­tor op­er­a­tors, even when fit­ted. The re­view rec­om­mends en­hance­ment of seat­belt use, par­tic­u­larly on trac­tors with­out a cabin. Sig­nif­i­cant run-over risks in­clude work­ing around trac­tors, par­tic­u­larly in front of the rear wheels, with­out the hand­brake ap­plied. Vis­ual blind spots were fre­quently a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in deaths in­volv­ing chil­dren. Chil­dren were also in­volved in ac­ci­dents where they were thrown from the trac­tor while rid­ing as a pas­sen­ger.

While the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try makes up just 2 per cent of Aus­tralia’s work­force, it suf­fers 21 per cent of work­place fa­tal­i­ties.


The re­view rec­om­mends farm­ing ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tions push for the take-up in safety fea­tures such as the “dead-man’s seat,” whereby the trac­tor can­not start if pres­sure is not ap­plied to the seat. The re­port sug­gests that a “re-in­vig­o­rated and sys­tem­atic ap­proach is re­quired to fur­ther re­duce the trac­tor fa­tal­ity bur­den in Aus­tralia.”

An ear­lier re­port pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Syd­ney made 28 rec­om­men­da­tions for im­prov­ing trac­tor safety, in­clud­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to al­low ac­cess only from out­side the wheel track, pre­vent­ing ac­cess to the starter mo­tor while stand­ing be­tween the wheels, cabin door latch han­dles that can only open up­wards, to min­imise ac­ci­den­tal open­ing, an emer­gency stop con­trol fit­ted in a po­si­tion ac­ces­si­ble from out­side the wheel track, com­pul­sory au­di­ble re­vers­ing alarms, and the com­pul­sory retrofitting of ROPS on older model trac­tors.

AgHealth’s Safe Trac­tor Op­er­a­tion Guide breaks down risks into seven key ar­eas – rollover, run-over, power take-offs, hy­draulics, er­gonomics, noise and op­er­a­tor skill – and of­fers guide­lines to man­age each of those risks.

Farm safety project of­fi­cer Kerri-Lynn Peachey says the fit­ting of ROPS on all trac­tors is es­sen­tial, but it’s not the only thing we should be do­ing.

“Trac­tor run-overs are now the lead­ing cause of trac­tor-re­lated deaths, re­spon­si­ble for about 50 per cent of all fa­tal trac­tor in­juries,” she says. “Trac­tors con­tinue to be a lead­ing cause of fa­tal in­jury on Aus­tralian farms, with over 100 lives lost since 2010.”

Other im­por­tant steps to en­sure safety are to fit safe trac­tor ac­cess steps that en­able ac­cess from out­side the line of the rear wheel of the trac­tor; and to en­sure the trac­tor mas­ter guard and im­ple­ment guards are fit­ted be­fore op­er­at­ing any power take-off (PTO)-pow­ered ma­chin­ery, Peachey says.


Un­der Safe Work Aus­tralia’s Aus­tralian Work Health and Safety Strat­egy 2012–2022, agri­cul­ture was iden­ti­fied as a pri­or­ity in­dus­try.

This year Safe Work Aus­tralia en­gaged con­sul­tancy com­pany ThinkPlace to help re­veal the be­havioural and cul­tural fac­tors that con­trib­uted to the preva­lence of in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties in agri­cul­ture. Specif­i­cally it asked the ques­tion: “Why aren’t peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing haz­ards and con­trol­ling risks on farms, when in­for­ma­tion and in­ter­ven­tions ap­pear read­ily avail­able?”

Al­though it was a rel­a­tively small study in terms of par­tic­i­pants it re­vealed sig­nif­i­cant in­sights into the safety mind­sets of a cross-sec­tion of agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tors. Un­der­stand­ing is­sues around safety in farm­ing means un­der­stand­ing the men­tal frame­work in which farm­ing op­er­ates.

“Aus­tralian farm­ing is a deeply cul­tural prac­tice,” it says. “Norms and be­hav­iours around farm­ing are in­flu­enced by cul­tur­ally shared traits and per­cep­tions. These traits are of­ten passed down to chil­dren and in­grained in the farm­ing ‘way of life’.”

It took the view that to im­prove safety on farms we need to un­der­stand farm­ing cul­ture and the rea­sons farm­ers be­have in the way they do.

The four key in­sights the study found were that: 1) in­vest­ments in safer equip­ment and prac­tices are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered in the con­text of eco­nomic and ef­fi­ciency gains; 2) when peo­ple change be­hav­iour to adopt safe prac­tices it is usu­ally based on near-misses, trial and er­ror ex­pe­ri­ences, and lo­cal sto­ries; 3) farm­ers ex­pect con­trac­tors will take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own safety, trust­ing that they have safer equip­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence; and 4) there is “sig­nif­i­cant so­cial norm­ing of risky be­hav­iour from an early age in farm­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, passed down through gen­er­a­tions and across com­mu­ni­ties”.

Trac­tor run-overs are now the lead­ing cause of trac­tor-re­lated deaths, re­spon­si­ble for about 50 per cent of all fa­tal trac­tor in­juries.

The study found that while many farm­ers recog­nised a need to make in­vest­ments that help man­age risk, it was of­ten not a pri­or­ity, or couldn’t be a pri­or­ity due to fi­nan­cial con­straints. Over­worked and of­ten des­per­ate to sow or har­vest when the con­di­tions are right, fol­low­ing safety pro­ce­dures of­ten gets left by the way­side, some­times lead­ing to dan­ger­ous or care­less ac­tions.

It noted that farm­ing has gone from low-tech, high-labour to an al­most com­plete rev­er­sal of that mix as tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced and the avail­able work­force has di­min­ished. A lack of skilled help in ru­ral ar­eas has led to farm­ers tak­ing on more them­selves, spread­ing tasks more thinly and con­se­quently ex­pos­ing them­selves to more risks.

Many farm­ers did not con­sider risk man­age­ment as part of a pos­i­tive work­ing cul­ture, pre­fer­ring a “com­mon sense” ap­proach to safety, while ad­mit­ting they some­times en­gaged in high-risk ac­tiv­i­ties.

Past ex­pe­ri­ences and sto­ries are the key drivers for change, with the wit­ness­ing of ac­ci­dents or near-misses, along with lo­cal folk­lore and sto­ries, the main im­pe­tus for im­prov­ing safety prac­tices.

The con­cept of a chain of re­spon­si­bil­ity is near non-ex­is­tent, with farm­ers trust­ing that any con­trac­tors em­ployed by them will be re­spon­si­ble for their own safety. Equip­ment is of­ten ac­quired with lit­tle or no train­ing in its safe op­er­a­tion aside from gen­er­a­tional trans­fer of knowl­edge. This mind­set re­sults in haz­ards and risks be­ing in­her­ited with that gen­er­a­tional trans­fer of knowl­edge.

A more sta­tis­ti­cal study un­der­taken by Safe Work Aus­tralia in 2013 showed that over an eight-year pe­riod 93 farm work­ers were killed as the re­sult of an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing a trac­tor, and that risk of be­ing killed in a trac­tor in­ci­dent in­creased with age.

It cited a com­mon cause of run-over fa­tal­i­ties be­ing the driver get­ting off the trac­tor to open a gate and be­ing un­able to re­gain ac­cess to the trac­tor while it was mov­ing.

Over the same pe­riod 14 peo­ple were killed af­ter be­ing trapped or crushed by a trac­tor, ei­ther when un­der­tak­ing re­pairs to the trac­tor or load­ing/un­load­ing the trac­tor.


The Na­tional Cen­tre for Farmer Health is a part­ner­ship be­tween Western District Health Vic­to­ria and Deakin Univer­sity. It aims to im­prove the health and well­be­ing of farm­ers, farm work­ers, and as­so­ci­ated fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties across Aus­tralia.

Di­rec­tor Su­san Brumby says it’s con­cern­ing that fa­tal­ity rates in farm­ing have stayed largely static (at around 17 per 100,000 work­ers) while other high-risk in­dus­tries such as min­ing and road trans­port have seen big im­prove­ments.

She says the good news is that im­prove­ments have been made in re­duc­ing trac­tor rollovers through in­creased use of ROPS, and that WorkSafe Vic­to­ria’s “15-minute farm safety check” has re­ceived good feed­back from farm­ers.

The check in­volves mak­ing a list of pri­or­i­ties based on the like­li­hood of and the con­se­quence of a va­ri­ety of in­ci­dents. It cov­ers high-risk ar­eas of farm­ing such as trac­tors and equip­ment, si­los and field bins, chem­i­cals, and elec­tric­ity ca­bles.

WorkSafe Vic­to­ria also pro­vides doc­u­ments on its web­site cov­er­ing trac­tor safety is­sues to do with at­tach­ment-re­lated ac­ci­dents, ROPS re­quire­ments, power take-off guard­ing, and trac­tor-driven post hole en­tan­gle­ment; while the Vic­to­rian Farm Safety Train­ing Cen­tre or­gan­ises a “Man­ag­ing Farm Safety” course.

Brumby wants farm­ing and agri­cul­ture to catch up with the vast safety im­prove­ments seen else­where. “Other in­dus­tries have done it, let’s make farm­ing next,” she says.

The over­rid­ing mes­sage through it all is that trust­ing in luck and com­mon sense isn’t good enough any­more. Trac­tors and heavy ma­chin­ery are in­her­ently dan­ger­ous and ac­ci­dents can – and do – oc­cur with even the most ex­pe­ri­enced op­er­a­tors. There’s no room for com­pla­cency or for turn­ing a blind eye to un­safe prac­tices.

While no one is sug­gest­ing farm­ing is an easy game, or that buy­ing a brand-new, top-of-the-line trac­tor is an op­tion for ev­ery­one, we still need to play our part in mak­ing sure ev­ery­one re­turns home to the din­ner ta­ble safe ev­ery day. Other in­dus­tries have cleaned up their act, it’s time we did, too.

There is sig­nif­i­cant so­cial norm­ing of risky be­hav­iour from an early age in farm­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, passed down through gen­er­a­tions and across com­mu­ni­ties.

Op­po­site: The num­ber of trac­tor rollover fa­tal­i­ties in Aus­tralia has fallen since the wide­spread in­tro­duc­tion of rollover pro­tec­tion struc­tures (ROPS)Above: Over an eight-year pe­riod, 14 peo­ple died af­ter be­ing run over by a trac­tor ei­ther dur­ing main­te­nance or while load­ing or un­load­ing the ve­hi­cle

Above: Farm safety prac­tices, both good and bad, are of­ten passed down to chil­dren in Aus­tralia and in­grained in “the farm­ing way of life”.

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