Posted: Oct 6, 2003
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Managing farm safety - the human cost of agriculture

A traditional view of Australian agriculture is one of an industry where people working and living on farms enjoy the wide open spaces, fresh air, good health and are reasonably free from external interference. The reality, however, is somewhat different.

Australian agriculture has one of the highest rates of workplace accidents and to date has lagged behind other major industries in terms of its occupational health and safety performance.

Primary producers and farm workers are known to be one of the highest risk groups for occupational injury and disease. In addition to the pain and suffering and loss of wellbeing caused by occupational injury and illness, agricultural enterprises are facing increasing workers compensation costs as a result of their poor claims performance, relative to all other industries.

Farm safety - the key risks

Most recent information suggests that agriculture ranks as the second most dangerous industry in Australia with on average one death occurring on a farm every three days. In addition to the high number of fatalities occurring within agriculture, it is estimated that between 200 and 600 injuries per 1000 farms require attention at rural hospitals each year.

While these statistics alone indicate an alarming number of injuries occurring on farms, they represent only a small portion of the total number of injuries which actually occur. There are many injuries including back injury, cuts and fractures that are not reported to either hospitals, workers compensation sources or insurance providers.

Consequently this information under-represents the true extent of injury and the impact which they have on the operating profit of the farm business.

Workers compensation statistics, which are typically used as an indicator to benchmark and compare the safety performance across various industries, provide only a very conservative estimate of all work-related injuries occurring on farms (perhaps representing as little as 15 per cent), as the majority of farmers are self-employed and therefore injuries occurring to this significantly larger group are not reported in workers compensation statistics.

There are also significant numbers of injuries occurring to unpaid family members, including small children.

Major agents of injury

Tractors remain the major agents of serious and fatal injury on farms, with roll-overs and run-overs being the most common type of tractor-related fatalities.

Other key agents of fatal and non-fatal serious injury include other mobile plant, vehicles, motorbikes (particularly four-wheeled or all-terrain vehicles), horses, grain augers and posthole diggers.

Not only do farm injuries have an effect in terms of pain and suffering, but they often also have a major financial burden. Farmers are already paying for the cost of these injuries by way of:

  • Delays in getting farm work done where the farmer or worker is affected;
  • Payment for medical treatment;
  • Wages for replacement workers;
  • High workers compensation premiums for the farming industry, currently over 10.3 per cent in New South Wales;
  • High personal accident/disability insurance premiums for the farming industry;
  • Payment for rehabilitation.

A conservative estimate of the cost of workplace injury to the farming industry across Australia is at least $0.4 billion per annum, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission estimates between $0.5 and $1.29 billion per annum. Costs of prosecution under the occupational health and safety act and pesticides act are significantly contributing to farm production costs. Added to this, in recent years agriculture has seen an unprecedented number of successful civil action claims brought against corporate farms and individual producers. However, by far the biggest risk of all for individual producers and the farming industry as a whole, is that of doing nothing.

Farm business management and the law

Contemporary occupational health and safety legislation in all states and territories require employers/managers to implement a risk management approach to health and safety hazards in the workplace. The underlying principles of risk management relate to:

  • Identifying hazards
  • Assessing risks
  • Controlling risks

These principles also underpin Best Practice in agricultural Occupational Health and Safety management across all other industries. Farmers and farm managers have not to date had access to relevant training to develop these skills, nor the appropriate and relevant tools to implement the risk management approach to farm health and safety.

Clearly, the importance that OHS training and OHS management resources for agriculture are practical, reflecting contemporary OHS management principles and based on real data should be obvious.

Conclusion

Injury and illness associated with life and work on Australian farms is costing individual farmers and industry dearly. In addition to the pain and suffering, farm workers compensation premiums are among the highest of any industry, and other costs are associated with medical care, replacement labour and loss of productivity.

Despite these problems, the good news is that the agricultural industry and individual managers are now more than ever before, actively involved with the Farmsafe movement and incorporating safety management into their farming operations.

This information has been reproduced from the Farmsafe Australia website, with prior permission obtained from the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, The University of Sydney.


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