Address to Farmsafe Conference, Launceston

  • Farmsafe conference, Launceston



OCTOBER 15, 2014

Farm safety, quad bikes


Thanks Jane, it is a pleasure to be here. Can I also acknowledge Professor Tony Lower, Charles Armstrong, Anne Taylor who nabs me every time I walk past one of the safety stands at a show or Agfest or something of that nature, and Charlie Pederson from New Zealand - it's good to see you here too. Can I add my welcome to Tasmania, particularly to all of those who've come down from the north island, it is good to see you down here and congratulations on holding the conference here.

As Jane said, I spent part of my youth on a dairy farm at Wilmot. I was cured of dairy farming by the time I was about 18 and took off to the big smoke, well to Devonport anyway, and started an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery. By the time I'd got to the end of that period of time in the construction industry, one of the things that I was also doing was writing some OH&S policies.

When I think of the changes that occurred in the construction industry over those 25 years, but also when I compare it with my time on the dairy farm and a number of other farms I've also been on, where most farmers have got everything that I saw on a construction site plus a whole heap more, the concept of OH&S on a farm really does take on a whole new concept. You're dealing with not just things that people might deal with in their everyday working life, but in the context of the fact that a farm is actually also your home for most people in Australia, it brings it in so much closer when you start to think of the issues we're dealing with and particularly major injury and death.

It is really pleasing that the number of on-farm deaths or agriculture-based deaths had decreased, but you can't stop striving to actually get to the ultimate goal of zero. We often see the advertisements on television of someone leaving a metropolitan site or their home and the aspiration is to get them home safely at night time. When your workplace is also your home it actually takes on a whole new meaning and one of the things that strikes me about many of the examples that I've seen is the familiarity that you have with your surroundings, where you live as well as where you work. Is a key feature in dealing with the issues of on-farm safety.

I think of conversations that I have with many people in the rural sector about red and green tape, and even in a number of other industries around the burden as they put it, of occupational health and safety regulation. But when you really think about it, what that's trying to do is to create a change in mindset, to create a change in culture. I was listening, I think on the radio this morning, and there was some commentary around how often you should be checking your general procedures when you go out to undertake an operation and what the cycle of that might be.

But really, when you think about it, it should be part of what you do every day and every time you go out to undertake an operation. Part of your general thinking should be about the particular safety elements of the task. Instead of just hopping on the tractor, walk around the tractor so that you get a sense of the space, any obstacles and anything else like that. How many times have you gone out and jumped in a car and backed into something because you didn't take that moment to actually think about it? It really has to be a mindset; it needs to be part of the way that you're actually thinking about it. It doesn't have to be about ticking a box on a form to actually make you say that yes I've complied with my OH&S. It is actually about mindset, it is about awareness.

I remember being at a conference in Hobart very early in my career and the examples of some absolutely terrible farm workplace based accidents were very largely about situational awareness, about not thinking about what was around you. Because you're familiar with it and do it every day, you just don't take that moment to think about what's next or what the circumstances that are around you are. I've seen it happen so many times on a construction worksite as well and it's about taking that moment to think about what might be around, or what you might be going to do next and what the hazards might be that crop up. Simple things like lifting up a sheet of roofing iron close to an overhead wire, it happens on a construction site and it happens on a farm doing a barn, they are all really important things to consider and things to manage.

I notice the focus in the program today on quad bikes and it's been a really interesting issue to watch and manage. Of the 49 deaths that occurred in 2013, around 20 of them were quad bike based and that fatality rate for quad bikes has sat around that 19, 20, 21 number for a few years now and just hasn't moved. Talking to the companies that manufacture the quad bikes had been an interesting exercise and I sense the frustration about the engagement with those companies. But there has been some movement and it was pleasing to see Polaris earlier in the year announcing the first time they've considered a rollover cage on a quad bike - that is something that they are alert to this issue. My conversations with them would indicate to me that they are very much alert to it, despite the frustration that you might feel from your perspective. Also the introduction of more fit for purpose type vehicles. So sit-in vehicles, rather than sit-over or sit-on vehicles. The comment that I picked up this morning was ensuring that you use a vehicle that is fit for purpose, and I think that's an important part of it. Just what you think about when you're considering what you're doing as part of your general OH&S consideration on the farm.

I know from my experience in the construction industry that sometimes you wouldn't have just the piece of equipment that you wanted and you'd make do, or you'd try to. There are some people who are short of digits because of that, or had the front of their finger taken off by an electric planer like I did because of that. So, utilising what's fit for purpose as part of your everyday operations is important and it's an important consideration when you're actually making your farm equipment purchases.

It is pleasing to see that there is some movement, I know there is a report currently with the New South Wales government and hopefully the wheels of government don't move too slowly this time in allowing that piece of work to be released publically. It's an important element in progressing what is obviously based on the statistics and is an important issue for us all.

It's pleasing from a government perspective that we've been able to make some contributions to a couple of the key research organisations - $375,000 to the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety in NSW and also the National Centre for Farmers Health in Victoria. I notice in the current election campaign in Victoria funding to the National Centre for Farmer Health has become quite a political issue. So obviously some of you out there are having an impact somewhere and that's only a good thing.

As I said at the outset, even though the numbers have reduced significantly from in the order of 150, as we indicated earlier, down to under 50 and about 49 in 2013, we need to continue to strive further to improve those statistics. The ultimate goal has to be zero fatalities. As a government we've got a 20 per cent reduction target by 2020 and the lower the number gets the harder it gets to make those gains, but you've obviously got to continue to strive.

In the broader respect of farmer health, some of the investments that we've been able to make in organisations around the country to do with, particularly mental health is important. I was talking to my colleague Senator Fiona Nash, who has specific responsibility around rural health, about that yesterday and she was very anxious that I understood exactly what they were doing in that context. We see it here, as Eric Hutchinson would know, with organisations such as Rural Alive and Well that operate through the rural sector in Tasmania. These programs are very important to ensuring that people have access to those services that they need in the context of managing their mental health.

So again, welcome to Tassie, I trust the conference goes well, unfortunately I am not going to be able to spend as much time with you today as I would have liked, but it is a real pleasure to be here. Thank you for pestering me to come.

It is at really important part of our rural community lifestyle that we do have a strong focus on health and safety and health in our communities and on our farms, so it's a real pleasure to be here to officially open the conference. Thank you.

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