NZ Farmers rep enters quad bike safety debate

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.

Kevin Jones

5 thoughts on “NZ Farmers rep enters quad bike safety debate”

  1. I think the matter of extra training may not be the whole answer. I think it is more important for the users to know what a quad bike can and cannot do! If people, farmers in particular, were aware of the limitations of quad bikes (ie angles, terrain, etc), some of these accidents may have been prevented, particularly rollovers.

    Protecting our farmers is paramount, but sometimes common sense should prevail.

    1. Common sense is the arch-enemy of safety, not its core principle. I would argue that it was the failure of common sense that required the introduction of safety legislation over a century ago.

  2. Hear, hear, Yossi! People are only human and we need to make our farms as safe as possible.

    I do think though, that the professionalism of farmers (dairy farmers at least – I don\’t know about the other agricultural sectors) has come a long way in the last decade and, with that, so has our awareness and approach to OHS.

    With the controversy surrounding ROPS for quads though (with or without seat belts and goodness knows how or where we would retrofit those), who can blame us for waiting for the blessing of OHS authorities before we rush out and get them?

  3. As has been said before, human behaviour and gravity are inevitable. Gravity isn\’t \’blamed\’, but is expected and therefore included as a factor in the design of things. But gravity seems lawful and accurately predictable people may say. So are certain things about human behaviour, e.g. if a short cut is possible it will be taken; people are busy; people have troubles; they get fatigued; they have a lot on their minds; the pace of life, water troubles, weeds, pests, failing machinery, family tensions, bank manager troubles……….. life. That’s all predictable.

    Obviously Donald Aubrey\’s comments about education and training are understood, but they are desperate reflex comments that are always made when no real solution is available, “more education, awareness and training”. That was the deadly mantra used by the asbestos industry for years to promote their contention that asbestos was safe to work with. Nowadays every 5 minutes someone around the world dies as a result of an asbestos disease,

    Here\’s a closer example: I\’ve been inspecting farms for many years. Over that period there has been an enormous increase in information about safe use of farm chemicals. There has also been an enormous increase in the number of farmers attending courses designed to educate and train about safe use of such chemicals; and farm associations proudly point to both these increases, particularly the latter.

    So how come I could take Don to farm after farm after farm where the farmer, his/her family and workers are constantly using chemicals in a most unsafe manner? Is this only a peculiarity of Australian farming?

    Clearly education, awareness and training in good and experienced hands (note!) are necessary. But without machine design that takes gravity and human behaviour into account the rolling over of quads is just going to go on.

  4. More focused data paints a different picture than that presented (\’cheapened\’) by Donald Aubrey\’s. Listed below is a comprehensive list of the quadbike fatalities for the last 12 months for New Zealand.
    1) Whilst conducting farm chores Suzanne Claudia died as a result of her quadbike overturning.
    2) Whilst conducting farm chores Renee McNeil\’s died as a result of her quadbike overturning.
    3) Whilst conducting farm chores Kevin David Knauf died as a result of his quadbike overturning.
    4) Whilst conducting farm chores Jack McInnes died as a result of her quadbike overturning.
    5) Whilst conducting personal chores Michelle Lee Goodgame died as a result of her quadbike overturning
    6) Unknown person reportedly died as a result of her quadbike accident on September 16 in the Dargaville aria, I currently have no further details available
    As you can see, all of the (known) fatalities involved a quadbike rolling over.
    Had a Quadbar been fitted, the likelihood of each of these incidents resulting in a fatality would have been significantly decreased.
    Donald Aubrey\’s assertion regarding the change in centre of gravity by the fitment of a ROPS, is incorrect, for the Quadbar at least. Donald knows this, (I have informed him personally) but he choses to omit this fact.
    The engineering solutions that Donlad suggest (tilt sensor etc) may have merit, but there are significant reasons why they have limited potential for saving lives, including:
    Human behaviour – ignoring the warning
    Users disconnecting the mechanism (a well known behaviour)
    The alarm needing to be triggered at a very low tilt angle to be of benefit (if set too high, may lead to operator false sense of security)
    Alarms can not take into consideration the addition of spray tanks and other equipment (which do significantly change the cente of gravity)
    Many quadbike roll over deaths happen on flat ground, which renders these mechanisms useless
    If the quadbike wheel hits a rock/root/pothole etc, which overtunrs the quadbike, the alarm will go off too late, as the operator is being pinned under the machine.

    The human behaviour argument is a frustrating one . The quadbike manufacturers regulalrly maintain that quadbike deaths are the result of human behaviour issues. This reasoning could also be used for car accidents, however car manufacturers go to enormous lengths to ensure that their cars are fitted with the most recent and effective engineering controls. The manufacturers, and by his most recent comments, Donald Aubrey, continue to ignore Coroners Olle\’s finding that:

    “Roll over’s occur when ridden by safety conscious operators who are not being stupid. The most alarming lesson from these inquests, is that careful, safety conscious individuals lost their lives whilst performing innocuous farming tasks on familiar terrain”

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