The bad news and the good news of New Zealand agricultural safety

On 8 October 2009, New Zealand’s Department of Labour issued a press release that stated

“New research confirms the importance of work in agriculture safety and health. The research by Otago University’s Injury Prevention Research Unit found that the rate of serious injuries and fatalities on New Zealand farms has remained high in contrast to declines in other industries over the past two decades.”

The release states that DoL continues to place a high importance on preventative action in the agriculture sector, an undeniably important economic sector for New Zealand.

OR72 coverHowever, what was most noticeable was that

“the rate of serious injuries and fatalities on New Zealand farms has remained high in contrast to declines in other industries over the past two decades.”

Surely this is not a good news story.  Twenty years of preventative interventions in the agriculture sector have not been as successful as those in other industries.

SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted DoL for clarification.  The commitment of DoL to the agriculture sector was re-emphasized.  DoL responded very promptly to our enquiries and provided links to additional information including the original research report.

Part of the Otago University project was a literature review in the sector from 2000 to 2008.  The major findings were

  • “The most common mechanisms for serious non-fatal injury and fatal injury include agricultural machinery (including vehicles –tractors, ATVs), livestock and falls for all age groups, in all three regions under review.
  • The exposures and risks of disease in the agricultural sector currently being researched and where researchers agree there is a need for further research include:
    • exposure to dust and organic materials and the relation to respiratory disorders;
    • exposure to pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and associations with various cancers including: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; prostate cancer, breast and ovarian cancer, leukaemia, multiple myeloma and brain cancers;
    • environmentally associated cancers (for example, skin cancer and cancer of the lip) and their association with production practice.
  • Occupational fatalities in agriculture remain high, despite decreases in occupational fatality rates for other industry groups, in all three regions over the last decade. The research demonstrates that there are various groups that are particularly at risk, these include:
    • men in all age groups;
    • older workers/farmers;
    • migrant and seasonal workers;
    • youths (particularly those aged between 11-15 years and male)
    • Children (particularly male children)
    • Farm-owners and managers, with respect to intentional fatal self harm injury) again predominantly men.”

Several other surveys were undertaken, one by telephone.  Those results are also telling.  Amongst the results was this paragraph concerning injuries:

“With respect to injury, thirteen percent (13%) of farmers from the AgriBase™ sample had had an injury, in the three months prior to interview, which had restricted their activity for a half a day or more and/or which required medical treatment from a health professional.  Generally these injuries were reasonably serious and respondents reported work capacity was poor following injury.  For two-thirds of those injured it was over a week before they could resume normal farming duties; yet only a third of these respondents made a claim to the Accident Compensation Corporation.”

Key findings of the report for governments include

“….there is no long term prevention strategy for injury and disease that specifically addresses the agricultural sector.”

“The dominant stereotype of the farmer as being rugged, independent and self-sufficient (and masculine) is also largely uncritically accepted by many stakeholders. These and associated stereotypes about the nature of rural life and notions of rural isolation are problematic and potentially can undermine effective health interventions in this sector.”

“…there is a tendency for initiatives to be ad-hoc and for there to be a lack of co-ordination and coherence, and in some instances, where there are some questions around the efficacy of various interventions, an unwillingness to accept that there are problems.”

There are many others that discuss a lack of resources, dubious targeting, a lack of coordination and inter-organisational politics.

For farmers and other individuals, some of the findings include:

“In connection to this evident stoicism was a vocational identification to the work they do; most could not imagine not farming, it was not just a job.  The implications here are that they would often keep on working with an injury (such as a back condition), as doing the work was more important, not just economically, but also in terms of their identity, and an underlying belief that it would heal itself if they just kept on going.”

“Many said they were too tired at the end of a working day to read about injury and disease or to go onto the internet to learn about it either.  When they opened the paper they wanted to know about local and international news, not health matters.  This presents some real challenges for the sector in terms of disseminating information.”

The University of Otago also issued a media release on the research project.  This release reflects the tone and results of the research project much more accurately.

The whole report reflects the current status of safety in the agricultural sector in New Zealand.  It reports on good intentions in the wrong areas, a need to look beyond the stereotypes and the need for sustained intervention.

What seems to be needed is a creative and effective response from the Government that acknowledges that past strategies have failed, or at least that some of them have.  All the existing strategies need reviewing to determine which have shown promise and could succeed if appropriate resources were allocated.  Inspiration needs to be sought from within the region and from around the world.  If this has already been sought and found wanting, the sad reality will be that it falls to New Zealand to make the change.

New Zealand’s DoL may already be facing this bleak reality.  In their media statement, the Department’s Chief Adviser, Safety and Health, Dr Geraint Emrys said:

“The Department will use the findings of the research to inform policy decisions and to better target operational interventions to make them more effective in reducing the injury and death toll in agriculture.”

New Zealand could lead the world in this important area.

Kevin Jones

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