Helmet debate misses the point of safe design

Workplace safety is rarely simple or easy.  It has become a standard recommendation in Australia recently for quad bike riders to wear helmets.  Quad bike manufacturers recommend the wearing of helmets and some OHS regulators are making it mandatory but this should not be the end of the safety discussion.  The Weekly Times newspaper on 21 September 2011 describes the current arguments occurring over the type of helmet to be worn.

It is common for workplaces to experience disputes or discussions over personal protective equipment (PPE).  These discussions are necessary to ensure that the best, the most suitable, PPE is used to control a hazard.  Sometimes safety eyewear can be heat-resistant sunglasses, sometimes this should be goggles.  Sometime head protection comes from a hard hat, sometime from a bump cap.  PPE should never generate new hazards when trying to control another.

The current discussion indicates has arisen over the wearing of motorcycle-style helmets while following a herd of dairy cows during an Australian summer.  Dairy farmers say that the wearing of helmets in these conditions is absurd and farmers will choose to ride quad bikes un-helmeted instead.

Michael Birt, a WorkSafe Victoria spokesperson, is quoted as saying:

“…..lightweight helmets, meeting the Australian standard 1698, were already available, and were light, cool and suitable for use in conditions where ATVs were used at low speed.

“The helmet is your last line of defence as a rider and when someone comes off (the ATV), they make a difference,” he said. “You don’t have to wear the full road helmet – these others pass the standard and farmers should go to dealers and say they want them.”

Quad bike manufacturers and users need to educate their clients and colleagues about the variety of helmets available.  It is silly to say that helmets must be worn without providing additional details about helmet type, suppliers, how to wear them……

It is useful to compare the quad bike helmet debate to that recently conducted about helmets for jockeys in horse racing.  The horse racing industry has been integral to developing new helmet designs but also in changing the physical workplace risks.  The quad bike industry seems less supportive of change.

But the Weekly Times article is, in one way, a distraction.  As Birt says the “helmet is your last line of defence” and it has limited effect.  The helmet protects the head but nothing else and it may be worth identifying the most frequent types of injuries incurred by quad bike riders to see if other hazard control options should be considered.  Accident Compensation Commission statistics from New Zealand says:

“Quad bikes are responsible for almost a third of farm fatalities (40% with head injuries)…”

(The NZ perspective on helmets was discussed on the SafetyAtWorkBlog two years ago)

So helmets are relevant to 40% of quad bike fatalities.  Therefore there are 60% of quad bike fatalities that are caused by injuries other than head trauma.  How are these fatalities being prevented or reduced?

Investigation of the design of quad bikes could substantially reduce all injuries and fatalities related to quad bikes, including, potentially, removing the need for any helmets for riders.  It could remove any additional costs to the farmers.  It could remove the need to provide additional information and education to farmers.

The risk of allowing a reliance on the use of PPE for quad bike riders in  workplaces is that attention is directed away from investigating changes that would be more sustainable, more comfortable and less disruptive to workers.  If quad bikes had been designed to reduce or eliminate harm initially, there would be no need for helmets, no controversy, no debate and possibly no deaths.

Kevin Jones

14 thoughts on “Helmet debate misses the point of safe design”

  1. All this discussion is well and good but what about the concept of \”taking responsibility for your own actions\”. As a long long time owner and user of Quad Bikes on farms I can state I have never worn a helmet on a Quad bike. They are uncomfortable, limit vision and are just plain bloody hot to use when traveling between 10-15 Kp/h performing farm related duties. I\’ve ridden motorcycles for 37 years and have always worn a helmet for that class of vehicle. Wearing a helmet on a Quad bike is about as useful as having ROPs fitted. Nice idea but doesn\’t work. On the other hand, having a specific course to learn how to ride a Quad bike correctly would be far more useful in curbing injuries. From my reading of the literature some 40% of injuries are head related……. That leaves 60% injury to some other part or parts of the body which a helmet won\’t fix. If someone traverses a hill sideways instead of up and down, he/she are going to have an accident, simple logic and physics apply. Correct rider education is the key, not helmets or other cotton wool stuff.

  2. Col, your comments are relevant. I\’ve used the same approach in recommending bicycle helmets and equestrian helmets PROVIDED they have hard outer shells to resist high point loads from the edges of quad bike components that migh impact on them in a crash.
    NZ research showed quad bikes almost never operated above 50 km/h (and then only on flat non loping ground. Horses can gallop at 40 km.h and up to 50 km/h; bicycles typically travel at 20 – 30 km/h but with fitter riders travel at 50 km/h. And the potential energy of the start position of a cyclist or equestrian rider is greater because they are higher off the ground.

  3. A follow-up and further and betters on alternatives to motorcycle helmets. I was having a dig around on helmet standards, particularly the type of helmet that is designed for use in heavy physical work situations.

    I see that arborist helmets are not tested for side impacts. That would limit their value for use on a quad. However, there is a side impact (60 degree) helmet test nominated by a mountaineering standards organisation, the UIAA.

    It\’s self-evident that a motor-cycle helmet that meets generally accepted standards is the \”best\” option for head protection. However, it\’s equally self-evident, and commonly recognised that PPE that is too hot, uncomfortable or generally considered awful will not be used, particularly if it hasn\’t been common practice to use the gear in the past.

    Mountaineering is hot work (I\’ve done a wee bit over in NZ.) Mountaineering helmets have to be designed for the best possible ventilation. So it looks like a mountaineering helmet with the UIAA certification could well be a good compromise for quad use on the farm; that certification will be designated by a label on the helmet (a mountain profile graphic with the acronym in it).

  4. Hear hear Les. There seems to be a fundamental and chronic dichotomy in OHS-World. It\’s between a demand the employer takes responsibility for practical workplace safety and angst that the solutions don\’t look exactly like what is recommended in minimum standards based on generalities.

    All strength to the arms of workplaces who put together workplace-based codes of practice because the general ones are just not good enough and people like milkmaidmarian getting her staff to wear helmets that actually fit the realities of the work.

    It\’s about time OHS matures around these parts. Trust that core principles can be understood by the \”unwashed\”, trust that they can apply those principles in ways that work. It\’s not a call to dismiss the work regulators do, it\’s a call for a genuine collaboration moving towards a mature safety environment.

  5. We need to be aware of the difference between:
    1: a \’standard recommendation\’ ie a recommendation for a minimum standard – which is not enfroceabel at law but may be referenced as evidence that sufficient was done
    2: a \’Regualtory requirement\’ which does not allow for alternatives and is enforceable at law.
    As I read it so far the quad bike helmet discussion has been focussed on the former rather than the latter – hence my recommendation makes sense for a \’reasonably practicable\’ defence.
    A properly documented risk assessment supports the argument for an alternative standard as \’safer\’ than the recommended standard.

  6. As I understand it, the WHS Act, Regualtions and Codes establish MINIMUM standards for worh health and safety.

    I have extensive expereince in NSW and am aware of one instance where an Organisaiton I consulted with several years ago established their own \’Code\’ in relation to use of mobile cranes in proximity to overhead electrical conductors. Their logic was that the Code available that had been developed pricinpally by the power generation/transmission industry failed to address some of the issues they experience with mobile cranes. The justification for the alternate (and improved) code was documented through a detailed risk assessment. To the best of my knowledge it has not yet been tested in a court (possibly because they achieved a safer standard?)

    My reason for explaining this is that a similar approach could be used to justify alternate (improved safety) helmets for use on quad bikes.

    I dare say that quad bike manufacturers did not spend too much time or other resource on idenitfying a suitable helmet (or range of helmets) for various applications. And it is not reasonable to expect a manufacturer to know the full range of applications and work locations that a particular piece of plant will be used in. Hence theirs is a \’recommendation\’.

    But this is where \’Consultative\’ legislation requires employer (PCBU\’s) to manage the risks associated with their business. Rather than relying on the \’regulator\’ to tell us what we need to do to ensure safety of workers we should consult with our affected workers and identify SOLUTIONS (plural is intentional) that suit our business.

    Hence PCBU\’s employing quad bikes should document a risk assessment that identifies the full range of potential uses of the plant (or a document for each application), the hazards associated with each application and relevant controls for each identified hazard.

    Hence it may be possible to document the need to wear a full motorcycle helmet when travelling on public roads in normal traffic but with alternate types of helmets for other situations such as hearding cattle in fields, or towing and equipment trailor doing fencing work.

    This approach then ties in with the approach that \’one solution does not fit all applications\’ – eg: leather gloves are used for some applications and rubber gloves for others, or safety spectacles vs goggles vs face shields.

    If this approach is taken and the risk assessment is \’consulted\’ with affected employees, it is MORE likely that a \’so far as reasonably practicable\’ defence would at least mitigate the likelihood of prosecution in the event an accident still occurs.

  7. I found this helmet on the web and think it would be fine for many farm applications
    Cheep, looks good and ASTM approved equestrian helmets
    Troxel Sport Helmet – The original lightweight ventilated equestrian safety helmet that redefined comfort and head protection. The Sport is still one of the lightest and most trusted helmets available. Features: 7 cooling vents and a removable washable headliner.$29.95 (us)
    Picture http://www.troxelhelmets.com/products/sport

  8. Yes, Les, that\’s right but the heads of WorkSafe (or whatever that committee is called) agreed on roadbike helmets for two reasons as I understand it:

    1. Because that\’s what it says in the quad manufacturer\’s instructions and;
    2. Because the AS committee investigating the adoption of a dedicated NZ standard for helmets during ag use of quad bikes rejected it. I am told off the record that this was because the AS committee was dominated by road bike helmet manufacturers. Not in their interests to okay a special helmet, is it?

    The second reason is why it would make sense for the worksafe authorities to pick an existing AS and apply it to this use, in my opinion.

  9. What about the types of helmets used by racing cyclists eg: Tour De France?????
    They do so much work, and travel through a variety of climates, their body temperatures must rise significantly. And they travel at significant speeds – especially on the downhills – and for significant durations . And yet, when was the last time one of them died as a result of a fall involving head injuries?
    Yes I realise that cyclcist have died from head injuries when involved in collisions with motor vehicles but that\’s unlikely to be the case on a farm is it?

  10. That\’s exactly the case, Col. As an employer, I don\’t know what I\’m going to say the next time we have a heat wave when one of our farm people says it\’s too hot to wear a road bike helmet and asks to wear an equestrian helmet instead.

    I tried wearing one of the so-called \”cool\” road bike helmets rounding up the cows last summer and had to pull it off halfway through the job, hair plastered to my head and feeling woozy.

    This situation makes it really hard to sell safety as a good idea, which is the way it\’s currently perceived on our farm. Instead, we are likely to have people either outright refusing to go along with the mandated helmets or taking them off when out of sight. Either way, it\’s a huge step backwards.

  11. Maybe the helmet \”debate\” is a bit of the OHS-World thing of wanting to be dogmatic in an environment where thinkin\’ is the most important thing. Plus, I think it\’s also got a big element of people hunting for a reason to rubbish anything to do with safety.

    Roger, a big proportion of quad deaths are thoracic injuries, but you\’d have to be loopy not to wear a helmet. You\’d be equally loopy to wear a full face or dirt bike helmet while sweating like a pig when working. Rock-climbing helmets, arborists helmets, all of \’em are designed to give excellent protection while keeping the nut as cool as possible. Sure, they aren\’t going to provide as much protection as a motorbike helmet. But I\’m tippin\’ that if a meticulous risk assessment was done, you\’d find that the distracting and exhausting heat stress wearing a motor bike style helmet when a quad is being used as a working tool would negate the extra head protection benefits.

    For mine, stuff whether the helmet has an Oz standard tick or not. If its been designed to a European or USandA standard ya gunna have confidence it will do the job. Stick to the big name brands and ya can\’t go wrong.

  12. Actually, the argument is not against the wearing of helmets per se but the type of helmet. WorkSafe is holding up the shorty as the solution but it\’s still unacceptably hot. Imagine the uproar if these were enforced for push bikes. After all, you can ride along Dandenong Road on a pushie next to semis – arguably facing much greater risks.

  13. I\’ve not had any experience with quad bikes but, with what limited knowledge have, I believe the most significant contributing factor to incidents is that they have a tendency to roll when the steering is \’wrenched\’ to make a sharp turn. I had a similar experience as an apprentice riding a full size tricycle to do ‘errands’ – turn the steering too quickly and the back of the bike wants to keep going in a straight line due to forward momentum.
    Hence the requirement for installation of \’rollover\’ protection designed to reduce the potential for crush injuries. As with tractors, forklifts and other mobile plant required to have them installed, these devises are only effective if the rider/driver is contained or restrained within the ‘cabin’ space eg: by use of a seatbelt.
    But where the rider is not restrained within, they can be thrown off as the vehicle rolls. This is where the head, and other serious, injuries occur.
    Surely then, the logic to achieve true prevention status should be for engineering redesign to reduce the potential for rollover in the first place. Ie prevent rollover and you don’t need rollover cages OR helmets both of which are reactive controls to reduce damage rather than to reduce the likelihood of incidents.

    This could be approached from a couple of directions at least as follows:
    1: Reduce the steering angle arc to limit how far (or how quickly) the front steering wheels can be turned. This could be achieved either by physical stops to limit the rotation or by use of a ‘reduction’ box to do the opposite of hydraulic steering in motor cars. I realise this could have the effect of causing a larger turning circle hence manoeuvring at slow speed would also be affected. But better this cost than the cost of lives, limbs and quality of life.

    2: Add stabiliser type devises to limit how far the vehicle can ‘lift’ when travelling. I’m no engineer but could it be possible to design them to fold forward/back/up when the vehicle is not in motion or travelling at slow speeds and then to deploy out/down when either:
    A: the vehicle speed reaches a critical point where turning suddenly can cause rollover or
    B: deploy rapidly if certain manoeuvres cause force shifts that result in rollover (similar concept to seatbelt technology that ‘locks’ the retractable belt under certain conditions).
    Again these will come at a cost but what is the value of a human life?

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