Of stunning, short-lived cactus flowers and quad bikes

The smoke from the mine:

It has been a frighteningly bad month in the mining industry internationally.  OHS meetings I attended during this period have been hushed as a result of the New Zealand tragedies.  Discussions about OHS have become more pertinent and more accurate – for the time being.  But this, like stunning but short-lived cactus flowers, will quickly disappear.

Because I’ve had close involvement with the Beaconsfield Gold Mine rockfall that killed Larry Knight, and years earlier with the Esso Longford explosions and fires in Victoria, the CrossCity tunnel fatality in Sydney… and many other tragedies or near misses, such events, like a sudden cramp, re-focus my thinking on current issues.  Another OHS failure that we didn’t stop.

Quad bike safety:

One such issue I’ve been involved in for some time has been the quad bike safety issue. The fatality statistics I have on these machines in Australia show that over the last 10 years 13 people (on average) are killed per year.  130 people, most of whom, the industry will have you believe, were ‘mis-users’ of the machines (see below).  The trend is up not down.

I have just resigned from the TransTasman Quad Bike safety committee created by the regulators last year.   The OHS and quad bike interest group in the community may be interested in some of the difficulties I see with the current work on this issue.

The obvious and useless in practice:

I think a much greater degree of transparency and openness – including a high level public conference – ought to take place.  And neither the regulators nor industry will be interested in that;

I believe that the committee’s final recommendations are likely to range over:

  1. Matters to do with training (including aspects of dynamic riding, which the industry considers essential);
  2. Matters to do with helmets;
  3. Matters to do with the use of accessories;
  4. Matters to do with kids;
  5. Matters to do with communications, education, awareness, advertising etc.;
  6. Matters to do with effective point of sale advice and choice of machine…. etc.

Some of these matters ought to be considered (yet again), including the perennial question of how to get reasonable uptake by what the industry (as a whole) regards as ‘mis-users’.  But these particular protections are obvious no-brainers; there was no need for this giant committee – with some 8-10 industry representatives (or associates) – for that.

User neglect’ they call it:

In the meantime the industry is working on their own version of a ‘code of practice’ in which an early paragraph (depressing in 2010!) sets the tone:

“……..in the USA, where nearly 7 million ATVs are in use, an analysis of accident data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates (2001) that 92% of ATV fatalities are the result of user neglect of on-vehicle warning labels, and the remaining deaths are the result of other forms of misuse warned against in owner’s manuals.  The principal forms of misuse involve not wearing a helmet approved for ATV use, carrying passengers on single operator ATVs, use of adult sized ATVs by children under 16 years old, use on paved surfaces, lack of suitable training, overloading and use of alcohol and drugs whilst operating ATVs.” [Emphasis added]

Regardless of how you view the naïve or dishonest use of such orphan quotes you can readily see it’s intended to convey that neither the manufacturers nor their machines are to blame.  This is very poor and very old-fashioned approach to OHS.   The quote below from Michael Tooma may help explain what I mean.

“The principle that you must always strive towards lasting and effective health and safety risk controls is fundamental to the belief system of anyone serious about safety. It is a non-negotiable principle.  It’s a learning paid for by the lives of thousands of Australian workers over the years. It’s a principle that is currently enshrined in legislation around the country.”

“As the renowned author Professor Kletz is fond of saying: to say that human error is the cause of an accident is about as instructive as saying that gravity is the cause of a fall. Both are true but they are not particularly helpful observations. The better question is what controls were there to guard against such errors.

Accident after accident we seem to be constantly amazed that employees would make obvious mistakes, as if human frailty is somehow a revelation worthy of a breaking news alert.  Relying on lower order risk controls, however, exposes the workplace to precisely the above reality. If an employee will not wear their hard hat or attach their harness suggests that a more effective control is necessary to prevent incidents.

Also, studies have shown that poor design is the root cause of most accidents.”

Michael Tooma, National J. of  NSCA, November 2010

Proneness to Rollover in normal usage

  • I am hardly the first to write that some (probably the majority sold) of these quads-in-normal-usage are prone to rollover.   They are operationally dangerous machines for the typical user;
  • These machines are used by ordinary people living a life with all its pressures and ups and downs.   The vast majority will not do the daily 23 checks, they will not check brakes, cables, instruments, handle bars, tyre pressure etc.  Most will not have been formally trained nor are they interested in this extra burden – even if it would help.
  • Yet the industry prefers to discuss dispositional philosophy and semantics, i.e. is it the machine’s ‘disposition’ (proneness to rollover), or is it poor usage (mis-use)?   After all, there are in all some 20 warnings across the users’ manual and stuck on the machines.  Surely riders must take note of that?!
  • The industry will not clearly – and up front – identify that proneness-in -usage, nor, I believe, are training schools or trainers associated with the industry likely to state that;
  • My starting position is that I believe that in a range of circumstances such rollovers will be protected against to some degree by the use of a Potentially Life Saving Device (PLSD), such as the QuadBar, which has face value validity as a PLSD. The industry is not likely to support or state that, (also see quote below);

“We learnt that lesson the hard way in the 19th century. It took the worst excesses of the industrial revolution for us to realise that factory owners will not necessarily guard moving parts of machinery, preferring administrative controls such as systems of work, instruction and training.

Indeed, as a Scottish spinning master famously declared in parliament in response to a Bill seeking the fencing in of moving parts of machinery.  “I have no hesitation in saying that, if passed into law, it would be utterly impracticable for any man to conduct an establishment where machinery is used… Every practical man knows the absolute impossibility of fencing in all the machinery in a spinning mill which may come under the denomination of dangerous…” – Tooma

  • Some fundamental good research not under the control of the industry (or traditional research approaches) needs to be quickly performed on such PLSDs, and specifically on the QBar.  Such research needs to be advised by people with some OHS experience (and quad bike riding experience) not just engineering dogma and uncertainty.  The industry is not likely to accept that;
  • The relevant ministers in each state, Safe Work Australia and Comcare need to be informed of the likely results of this committee’s work and that not a single aspect of that effort will address the fact that some of these machines are prone to rollover and are therefore dangerous.  And the industry will object.
  • If this comment seems unfair or harsh ask yourself this:  what reductions in deaths or injuries are likely to result from the work of this committee in the next 10-15 years?

The committee’s Regulator-directed work is now drifting strongly towards producing material that implicitly blames users and presumed ‘misuse’.  It’s the accusative, pointing finger of ‘You the user must do this to improve safety…….’.   Nothing in that points to machine design or PLSDs.

I’m more interested to start from the position that human behaviour, its variability and opportunism must be accepted as a fact informing design; a very old-fashioned ergonomic principle.  Therefore, as I see it, some of these prone-to-rollover-quads-in-usage are dangerous and more people will be killed.  I’m well aware of the ‘sky will fall in’ tone related to tractors and ROPS, and am not prepared to just support the obvious and minimalist position, whilst these machines kill as many or more than the entire mining industry in Australia per year.

Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Of stunning, short-lived cactus flowers and quad bikes”

  1. Firstly I think we should all thank Kevin for hosting discussions on quad bike safety.
    Secondly I sense that at last the efforts of a number of people have finally overcome the Zellner misinformation that has prevented the fitting of devices to limit rollover and rearward tipover to about 90 degrees – thereby preventing riders being trapped under overturned quad bikes and dying.
    Thirdly it is sad that even now we have Rhys Griffiths of the FCIA as the industry representative stating \”Roll Over Protection Systems are not the answer.\” As my paper clearly shows, changes to the design of these vehicles including the addition of a device described above will have the greatest impact on reducing deaths and injuries to people who use these quad bikes responsibly.

  2. I know what Michael is trying to say, Kevin, but urging people to be careful, to ensure they are trained and to understand the danger and risks with these machines is focussing on the individual and not the source of the problem – not dealing with the hazard at the source. And from our point of view (as unions) we believe any comment coming from the OHS regulator should clearly be focussing on the eliminating the risk at the source. Until quad bikes are designed more safely, we will keep having these tragedies. Dr Yossi Berger has an opinion piece in today\’s Weekly Times Now at http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2011/03/16/306951_opinion-news.html

  3. How many more people are going to be killed and injured before not only the designers, but the regulators \’get the message\’? Experts last week urged safer design (Dr Tony Lower, from Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety) Yet despite this, today I read (with disbelief) a WorkSafe Victoria spokesman saying that in view of recent incidents, people \”need to be more careful when using them\”, and \”needed to be properly trained and supervised when using quad-bikes and needed to be aware of their limitations.\” (The Daily Telegraph http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/breaking-news/quad-bike-death-prompts-safety-warning/story-e6freuyi-1226021713469)

    1. Renata

      WorkSafe Victoria\’s Michael Birt is reported as saying, in the Daily Telegraph/AAP article, there is a need for training and supervision. I think this is a reasonable recommendation and as one who has recently started riding motorocycles again after 25 years, I am very aware of my need for refresher training.

      The other quote you mention is, in full:

      \”It\’s getting people to understand that there is an element of danger and risk with these machines and people need to be very careful about how they are used\”.

      Michael is basically acknowledging that quad bikes can be very dangerous machines and that the machines should not be ridden or used inappropriately.

      I think that the debate generated or enlivened by the ACAHS report you refer to from last week is further explained through the various letters and opinion pieces in this week\’s edition of The Weekly Times (a SafetyAtWorkBlog on the comments and articles will be available this evening). In fact Fiona Myers has a 16 March 2011 article on the debate at http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2011/03/16/307801_national-news.html

  4. It would be very disappointing if the Trans Tasman Working Party were come down with recommendations that are now as old as Noah! The helmet, passgenger, age and training have been promoted by well meaning committees who think they are going to change the course of quadibike safety on numerous occasions in the past, but history shows us that these efforts have been fruitless and the appalling death and injury statisitics continue to rise.
    How bad do things need to get? Surely the fitment of a potentially life saving device could be no worse that the shocking situation that farmers and workers are currently faced with.

  5. Like most things in this age, safety features are not always attractive and in many cases may actually point out that the item they are attached to may be dangerous in some circumstances, and could deter potential buyers. Christmas is peak season for importers of mini-quads, designed for the kiddies to ride around the yard or the paddock, and crash into things or tip over (hopefully while a caring parent has the video camera trained on them so that they can send the episode to fuuniest home videos, and maybe win prizes). And that is the problem. People fall off things, over things, and on to things, but nobody ever seems to get badly hurt. Or do they cut the video off before the blood and pain shows? Whatever the case, falls from things like quad bikes (whatever the size) never seem to hurt anyone, at least, not on tv. (The same also goes for mini-bikes, or bikes in general (pedal or motor)).
    Awareness is one of the greatest safety tools. Complacency is one of the greatest accident causatives. Complacency about the lack of safety features (such as a roll bar) on inherently hazardous equipment such as quad bikes will continue unless public awareness is raised. If people saw other people actually being hurt, it might raise awareness. But, that might also hurt ratings, mightn\’t it. And we can\’t have that, can we. At least, not in prime time.

  6. Read the article full of wisdom with a degree of sadness.
    Yossi would have had the riders interests in mind – that is the people who are killed and injured.
    Once again it seems likely the motorcycle industry will avoid accepting any responsibility for the deaths and trauma the design of its products causes fully or partially. They love blaming the users and promoting training. But they will resist any changes that might impact on their market.
    THe state no one under 16 to ride quads, no passengers on most quads, don\’t operate them on sealed roads … – but then build adult quads that 7 year olds can ride, have seats and cargo racks that can accommodate many more than the rider, and do nothing to prevent these vehicles from being registered for use on roads.
    And they actively work to discourage the fitting of any form of ROPS even though they know the \”research\” they rely on to justify this position isn\’t worth the paper its written on!

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