An opinion piece was published in the New Zealand Herald on 12 January 2011 concerning quad bikes. There are several points raised by Donald Aubrey, vice-president of Federated Farmers and chairman of the Agricultural Health and Safety Council that can be disputed.
“In the hands of the untrained or the over-confident they can be deadly. And quad bike safety is far from being a problem exclusive to the agricultural sector.”
From the outset Aubrey’s position is clear, the problem with quad bike safet is not design-related, it is lack of training and over-confidence. Training for quad bike riding has existed for many years and injuries continue to occur. At what point should more effective controls be introduced?
Aubrey also says that the problem extends beyond agriculture. Possibly, but it helps to focus on quad bikes designed as work vehicles, used as work vehicles and operated within workplaces. These are areas and issues covered by occupational health and safety rules and guidelines.
It is almost pointless entering an a discussion on OHS injury statistics. Aubrey states that
“ACC figures show 417 quad bike-related claims were lodged in 2008-09. Of those, 51 were road accidents, 207 were “non-work or other” and 159 were “work- related”. In other words, work-related incidents represented 38 per cent of ACC claims.”
It is well established that workers’ compensation claims provide an underestimate of workplace injuries. Claims data reflects claims lodged.
However Aubrey’s comparison of quad bike incidents with the rod toll and injuries in the home is absurd. This type of comparison and distraction cheapens the discussion on quad bike safety and safety management.
“In 2009, the ACC “home toll” (people accidentally killed in their own home) registered 621 deaths – more than 50 per cent higher than the corresponding road toll. While 18,600 people were injured in farm-related accidents in 2009 – one person every 34 minutes – some 632,920 people were injured in their home – one every 54 seconds.”
Aubrey acknowledges that ROPS May have a safety role but then generalizes without evidence.
“Some of our members have developed alternatives such as T-Bars which may have a safety role to play. Yet almost all commercial users of quad bikes agree roll protection and harnesses may increase the risk of injury.”
The establishment of evidence from which safety decisions can be made would be welcome and, it is suspected, would be supported by the agricultural sector but what is meant, in the quote above, by “commercial users”. If by this he means manufacturers and distributors of quad bikes, he may be correct but if he is referring to “users” of quad bikes, the generalization is unproven. Figures quoted elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog say that 15% of NZ farmers have ROPS of some sort on their quad bikes. Yes it is a minority, but a significant minority and one that, over time, may indicate a growing trend.
Aubrey provides a scenario that causes him great concern:
“One scenario that gives me the shivers is a quad bike rolling downhill and on to a stump with the user restrained. As well, roll systems fundamentally change a bike’s centre of gravity, making a bad situation worse.”
This is a concerning scenario and one that could be reduced substantially by a restrained driver within a roll-cage, just as would occur on a tractor. This is the type of scenarios that require independent examination and investigation.
Roll systems may change a quad bike’s centre of gravity but the best way to change this is likely to come from a redesign and integration of ROPS rather than add-ons, particularly ones that are “knocked up” in the farm workshop.
Aubrey writes that
“… some people, including Wellington’s coroner, have called for mandatory roll over protection systems with harnesses – but Federated Farmers isn’t so sure.”
Everyone would benefit from being sure and this can only come through independent research.
Aubrey advocates the possibility of new technologies of tilt warning systems, inclinometers, clinometers and multiple warning triggers. These may have their place but new technologies should be implemented only after old technologies have been found wanting. ROPS are likely to be cheaper over the life of the quad bike or structure because of the small amount of maintenance that is required. Electrical, wired new technologies usually have a shorter lifespan, requiring more maintenance and often by a technician – all elements that increase the cost of safety beyond that of a ROPS.
In relation to the Otago University study, Aubrey states that
“…human behaviour is the biggest determinant of incidents.”
Indeed they are but incident investigation moved well beyond stopping at “human error” years ago and now investigations look at the social organizational and cultural factors that may encourage human behavior. Inappropriate design of plant and equipment is one of these factors in many incidents and fatalities.
There is no doubt that Donald Aubrey is concerned about the deaths and injuries of farmers from riding quad bikes but there are also clear indications in the current NZ Herald article and recent statements from Aubrey that a major influence on his decision-making is the information provided by the manufacturers and distributors of quad bikes. The best evidence on safety, as has been shown in medical research, comes from those researchers who are funded independently of product suppliers. One only has to look at the history of research on the health and safety issues of smoking, asbestos and pharmaceuticals.
The best opinions on any issue come from a broad range of consultation and research from a wide variety of reputable sources. This is still missing from the debate on quad bike safety.