I am conflicted by this farm safety story. It is great to see a farmer talking about the impact on him of a death on his farm. It is rare and important that stories accompany these deaths. They humanise them and move people to action. This farmer needs to keep doing this work – speaking up about his story and supporting change. But his message is mixed and while I run the risk of shutting up others for trying, there is a tougher lens that needs to be put on the stories told by the industry, and my worry is that because the farming safety discussion is so dominated by the farmers (in a non-unionised sector), some of the tough issues get washed over.
Half the workplace deaths in NZ last year were in agriculture. Already this year the toll has been massive. Every week someone is seriously hurt or killed. Virtually no one is prosecuted. Federated Farmers vehemently advocate no prosecutions and lobby without principle in my view when Worksafe do take any form of enforcement action. Recent made up stories by MP Chester Burrow about farm safety enforcement action lead the front page of the Whanganui Chronicle. A quick OIA to Worksafe proved Mr Burrows was doing the farmers dirty bidding and instead of calling him on his attempts to undermine Worksafes good work, the Chronicle allowed him to continue his campaign.
So what about this story. Its a multi-farm business. The farmer himself says that the farm had no health and safety policies but had invested in some helmets and chainsaw chaps. The helmets were not regularly being worn and he was aware of that including from a previous serious near miss. The farmer concludes he had done just enough to avoid prosecution – but that he should have documented staff refusal to wear a helmet to be sure that in todays climate he would still be safe from charges. But in reality what had he done? The second quad accident in months – both related to head injuries from lack of a helmet? What had he done to avoid prosecution in an industry out of control in regards to injuries. Surely buying the helmets is not taking all practicable steps?
Of the hundreds and hundreds of accidents on farms in the last few years, there have been fewer than 10 sets of charges laid, and the accident rate is increasing. As the Pike inquiry showed – enforcement is an important part of the system, and has been largely absent, contributing to an appalling record across NZ. The reality is, this farmer had not done enough to avoid prosecution – but he was not prosecuted regardless. The farmer rightly laments how hard it is to change the farm safety culture – but why is that. Maybe we can look at forestry, where over 300 enforcement actions have now been taken by Worksafe in one year, where prosecutions now appear to be part of the mix, where education and support continues to be part of the package, and where workers now are beginning to have an expectation and demand that they be kept safe, the accident rate is reducing dramatically and cultural change is slowly occurring.
The NZCTU is stepping more and more into this area of health and safety. We don’t trust the farmers to do it themselves. Like forest owners and contractors – there has to be a push and pull and we hold the role of speaking up for workers and families in this country -even where the law conspires to ensure union membership protection is not available to them. We are now looking at a recent death with a view to ensuring enforcement action occurs – Worksafe hopefully will beat us to it, but if not – its time to push culture change from up the chain.