Latest Australian farm injury statistics

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The Victorian Injury Surveillance Unithas released its latest quarterly statistical report, HAZARD.  Number 68 provides a fascinating picture of the farm safety in Victoria, Australia.  I strongly recommend that you get on the mailing list so that you can understand their statistical sources and limitations, as these are important and there is not enough time to discuss them at SafetyAtWorkBlog.HAZARD - Edition 68

Farm injury statistics for the period 2004-06 found 41 unintentional farm injury deaths, 1,765 hospital admissions and 7,259 presentations to hospital emergency departments.  Years ago I remember (vaguely) a ratio of 17 injuries to every farm death.  On my calculations (and remember I am an Arts graduate) the new statistics show a ratio of 43 hospital admissions for every fatality or 177 injuries (ED presentation for every fatality.

The detailed breakdown of agency of injury, age of injured person etc. makes this a fantastic resource for those working in farm safety.

One of the benefits of this type of research is that it allows us to determine the success of safety interventions, usually coordinated by government agencies.  (One could argue that this is one reason for the paucity of research on intervention activities) In the VISU report’s discussion it said that

“No studies have reported that farmers’ or farm workers’ attendance at farm safety courses has reduced injury risk on their farms…. [and]… the authors suggest that safety training is better applied by farmers and farm workers if it is delivered in the context of farm skills-based training rather than stand-alone farm safety sessions.”

This confirms the adage that one can know how to do something safely but one has to see it being done, to be convinced it is the right way.

Part of the report’s conclusion is that

“…. the evidence suggests that education alone is insufficient to affect the adoption of safe behaviours and technologies.”

I strongly recommend you download the report and read it carefully.  There may be only a small amount of evidence and research in this sector but what there is VISU has identified and analysed.

Guest workers and rural accommodation

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There is a debate in Australia at the moment about easing the labour shortage by allowing “guest workers” into the country on temporary visas.  Australia has a bit of history in migrant labour but not as much as those nations who share land boundaries and have not been saddled with the White Australia Policy that Australia held onto for decades.

It is time for Australia to accept its geographical and political position in South East Asia and the Pacific, but how does this relate to workplace safety?

The current debate is about easing the labour shortage in agriculture and, specifically, fruitpicking.  For the guest worker scheme to work, Australia needs to show that guest workers are trteated with respect and are not being used as cheap labour, an accusation that is being bandied about.  Respect means good working conditions as well as a proper salary and part of those conditions with be accommodation.

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, emphasised this on 18 August 2008:

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young
Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young

“While it is pleasing to see the Government provide much needed assistance and training for our Pacific neighbours, especially with the injection of money back into their respective communities, we must ensure that the guest workers are not exploited,” said Senator Hanson-Young.  “Poor housing and contentious pay deductions are two issues that the Greens will be keeping a close eye on.”

The State of Victoria has a strong and large fruitgrowing area which. like most, relies on seasonal workers who reside on the property.  The accommodation needs of farm workers is neatly summed up in the Victorian guidelines for shearing.  Part of the guidelines state

In workplaces where accommodation and amenities are provided by the employer for employees, as is the case with shearers’ quarters on a property and amenities at the shearing shed, the amenities provided are regarded under the OH&S Act as part of the workplace. In this situation the general duty of care of the employer to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health extends to the accommodation and amenities provided and to travel between the quarters and the shearing shed. (WorkSafe’s emphasis)

As has been proven in the past, migrant labour is frequently exploited, which is part of the trade unions’ concern with the scheme.  OHS regulators, farmers and rural employers need to be assessing these facilities now (if it is not too late in the season) so that new employees can begin work confident that they will be well looked after and amply rewarded for their work.  Even if there is no specific amenities compliance code or guidelines for this agricultural sector at the moment, there is plenty of information that indicates the decent way to treat guest workers.

Another safety culture disaster in Australia

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In August 2007 the Australian equestrian industry was struck by its first-ever outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).  The Federal Government’s report on the incident has been released and has significant lessons for several reasons.

Australia has been proud of its biosecurity and customs service for decades.  As an island nation at the end of the world, there is a level of purity in its ecology that needs to be preserved (even though there were many earlier mistakes – foxes, rabbits, cane toads – to name a few).  The country’s pride was obviously out of touch with reality as Justice Callinan was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.  Few government reports have included the clarity (or bluntness) of phrase as this report includes.

“The objective of biosecurity measures at a post-arrival quarantine station for animals, such as Eastern Creek, is to prevent the escape of disease that might be present in the station. It is therefore essential that people and equipment having contact with the animals are adequately decontaminated before leaving the station. That was not happening at Eastern Creek in August 2007. Had such biosecurity measures been in place, it is most unlikely that there could have been any escape of equine influenza from the Quarantine Station.
That such measures were not being implemented was a consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS at different levels of that organisation and over a number of years.”

As the media reports appeared and the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, spoke passionately about the need to review the entire biosecurity process, farmers and other were thanking their luck that the outbreak was EI and not Foot & Mouth or other equally nasty infection.

Indonesia, a consistent sufferer of Avian Influenza, is only a few hundred kilometres away.  If Australia had a poultry industry on its northern shores, would the Government’s approach to quarantine inspecton be different?

Callinan goes on to depict an organisation of mismanagement and is not afraid to point the finger of blame and responsibility.  He summarises:

“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.”

For OHS professionals and risk managers, these systemic failures would fit with too many other risk management failures.  It is too easy a criticism to say that the organisation was devoid of a safety culture.  In the case of quarantining possible infectious animals, the organisation and process was inept.

A few years ago, Chris Maxwell undertook a review of Victoria’s OHS regime and stated that he thought citizens should be able to expect government departments to be exemplars of workplace safety.  It is an expectation that may be unfair in many areas but when an organisation has been urging the public to be super-diligent over the importation of items that could potentially decimate agricultural industries, and then fails disastrously itself, maybe the public campaign funds could have been better spent inside the organisation.

ABC Radio report – http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/news/audio/pm/200806/20080612-pm01-horseflu.mp3
Government response http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/690704/ei-response.pdf