Farmer pays the price
He thought it wouldn’t happen to him. It did
BUNDLING a chuckling 18-month-old out of the car, proud grandfather-of-five Garry Nichols says he loves life, and soaks up the joy of sharing time with his family, even when the little ones are throwing a tantrum.
It’s a good life that he could easily have missed completely when a tractor struck a large obscured rock that had a washout below, causing the tractor to roll over onto him, resulting in the loss of his leg, from the hip. He remembers the moment vividly as being 3.38pm on the day before Anzac Day, 26 years ago.
“It was only a small farm, but I was building to have cattle, that was my dream, but the tractor quashed that,” he said.
“We bought a rough old block, hilly. I loved the hills, I was raised in the hills, I learnt to drive a tractor in the hills as a boy.
“I still love the hills ... they just don’t love me any more.”
Garry and his wife Marlene had put 10 years’ hard slog into developing their banana-transitioning-to-cattle operation west of Innisfail, North Queensland, and also operated a leasehold west of Herberton that ran 170 head.
Both from rural backgrounds, they had good knowledge of the industry and a very clear vision of where their future lay.
The year before, Garry’s tennis team had won the A-grade final at Innisfail.
Their daughter Crystal had only just turned three.
Garry went out that fateful afternoon to slash some hilly country on their 16-hectare farm, aiming to open up some additional pasture. He knew the day was fading, he knew the country had rocks tucked in scrubby grass.
“I was hard-headed, and I just wanted to get the job done,” Garry said.
“I also know that the rollover was preventable.
“Back in the day I was a bit of a bulldozer. I was driven back then, and I think that was part of my undoing – I pushed myself, so many jobs to do and not enough hours in the day.
“I think most farmers would agree with that. Doing things we shouldn’t, taking shortcuts ... and that’s what I did.
“I should have actually got the dozer in, instead, I went out there with a nine-month-old 60hp tractor and a slasher, and tried to open the country up so that I could get some grass and bring the weaners down.
“I didn’t even have the money to get a dozer at the time. So, we seem to do these things unfortunately. The fortunate thing is, I’m still here to tell the tale.”
He cites other factors, aside from not using the right tool for the job, that included not having the right safety equipment, having removed the cumbersome roll-frame that came with his tractor.
He had wanted one suited to banana crops, but that was not available for the tractor – only one suited to open paddocks. That took some four hours to fix into place, and it was not legally required at the time anyway. So he gave it a miss.
Garry acknowledges a lapse in concentration as a factor.
“I wasn’t paying attention to the task at hand when I rolled the tractor. I’d come off the steep part, started to relax, to think about Saturday, when I had to go up to the cattle. I was looking up the hill.”
And then came the rock. As Garry regained awareness, he saw a cloud of dust down by the road as his wife left for town. Help wasn’t going to be coming from home.
His only hope was calling for his neighbour. And a piece of training from his days of active service in the army: shell wound dressing, taught to combat soldiers so they could administer field dressings, at the right pressure point, to major shrapnel wounds.
Making use of his pocket knife and belt, he was able to stem blood loss for the hour-and-three-quarters it took for his neighbour to become aware of the accident, and the two hours until paramedic help arrived. He was weak, but still alive.
“It was like a book slamming shut, a final chapter,” he said.
He attempted for three or four years to keep the dream of a cattle farm alive, even designing his own purpose-fit crutch and adapting lifts and tractors to aid his ability.
But the financial realities meant it was time to let go.
Garry had already turned his attention to advocating for better safety requirements on tractors, particularly around site-appropriate roll frames.
Workplace health and safety officers took note of the hard-headed advocate, and began to look to him as someone from a farming background, with industry experience and a story to which other farmers could relate in a workplace safety advocacy visit.
“So I get out in front and say: ‘Look, I was a hard-head, and look where it got me. It wasn’t going to happen to me, it was going to happen to someone else’.
“Yet, in my immediate vicinity, a bloke had been killed by his tractor, in his shed; there’d been multiple rollover accidents in the district – a tractor had snapped in half ... but it happened to other people, not me.
“And that can be a real problem, that culture of ‘well, I’ve been doing it this way for years, and nothing’s happened to me’.”
He said agricultural industries needed to work to improve the safety culture for young workers coming through, to develop safer systems and approaches.
“The support is out there. If there’s a problem, you can get the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland advocates out there for a talk; you can get in touch with and get one of the advisers to come and help you find a better way of doing it,” he said.
“We need to not be too proud to ask for assistance. There are several rural specialist advisers available across Queensland.
“They are there to help you better set up your farm and protect your workers.”
This story is the first of a four-part series sponsored by the Queensland Government Office of Industrial Relations.
It was only a small farm, but I building to have cattle, that was my dream, but the tractor quashed that.
— Garry Nichols
IN AN INSTANT: Garry Nichols lost a leg at the hip following a tractor rollover on his Daradgee property, near Innisfail, 26 years ago.
has Garry Nichols experiences, Safety own Drawing on his Workplace Health and become a committed Queensland advocate.