It sounded like a threat from WorkSafe.
“I think you’ll see us getting quite radical in the new year…. So prosecuting farmers has not been an area that we’ve particularly been in but we think we may need to be in that space.”
– Marnie Williams, Executive Director, Health and Safety at WorkSafe – Victoria
That was the response to questions from Kevin Jones, the author of Australia’s top independent OHS blog, Safety At Work, about how the regulator would attack Victoria’s stubbornly high number of quadbike-related deaths.
Ms Williams also told Safety At Work that WorkSafe plans to send inspectors to 25 per cent more farms next year. One in 10 can now expect a knock at the door.
So, what exactly does WorkSafe have in mind for Victorian dairy farms? Milk Maid Marian invited Marnie Williams to write a guest post and I am very grateful for her explanation. Thank you, Marnie.
Why WorkSafe is getting tougher on quadbike safety – and how you can help
Marnie Williams, executive director of Health and Safety at WorkSafe Victoria
Bad news arrives by text message at WorkSafe.
Usually, the fact that the phone of everyone around me beeps simultaneously provides a few seconds of warning, but this never quite prepares me for the details on the screen.
Inevitably the message is a Code Yellow, notification to senior WorkSafe staff that someone has been seriously injured, or worse, killed, at a workplace in Victoria.
As WorkSafe’s inspectors and investigators swing into action, my mind goes to the scene and to the thought of families being given the heartbreaking news that something has happened to someone they love.
Sadly – and all too often – these families are on farms, perhaps just a few hundred metres from where the incident has occurred.
And frustratingly for everyone at WorkSafe, too many Code Yellows contain the words “quad bike”.
Make no mistake, quad bikes are the most dangerous piece of machinery on Australian farms. SafeWork Australia data shows that 115 people have died as a result of quad bike incidents in Australia since 2011, 24 of these in Victoria alone. Even more tragically, some were young children. Not all of these people were using a quad bike for work at the time of their incident, but we know from our own research that many of the circumstances remain stubbornly the same.
Helmets not worn, operator protection devices (OPDs) not installed, quad bikes poorly maintained, being used to perform tasks they weren’t designed for or travelling over ground they were not built for. Operators not trained to ride them and children, physically incapable of handling such machines safely, allowed to ride them.
Despite the media focus, the academic studies, the recommendations of numerous coronial inquests and the pleas from medical professionals who see the trauma caused by quad bike accidents first-hand, the deaths have kept coming.
The reluctance of quad bike owners to fit OPDs, take up training and wear helmets has been of particular frustration to WorkSafe. Considering that more than half of the quad bike deaths recorded by Safe Work Australia involved a rollover incident, and that quad bikes often weigh 300-350kg, it confounds us.
That is why, early last year WorkSafe decided that enough was enough. It decided to put OPDs on the list of risk control measures formally recognised for quad bikes (helmets were already there). This means that if a quad bike is being used in a workplace – and there is a risk of rollover – the employer must consider fitting the bike with an OPD to eliminate or reduce the risk so far is reasonably practicable.
Since that time we have been working hard to educate the farm community about the safety benefits of an OPD. Together with the State Government, we have implemented a $6 million rebate scheme – administered by the VFF – to help farmers pay to fit OPDs on existing quad bikes, or to help pay for the purchase of safer side-by-side vehicles.
We have also been driving home the message to Victorian farm owners that enforcement activity will soon begin.
This means that when WorkSafe inspectors see a quad bike that is at risk of rolling over due to the task it is performing or the terrain it is being operated on, they won’t be waiting for an incident to occur. An improvement notice will be issued on the spot, requiring the employer to fit an OPD or remove the bike from the risky environment.
Ignoring a WorkSafe improvement notice may lead to charges for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In cases where a quad bike without an OPD has rolled over and caused death or injury, the owner can expect to be prosecuted through the courts.
These are not measures WorkSafe takes lightly, but the number of quad bike deaths and serious injuries demands action.
However, WorkSafe’s new approach on OPDs doesn’t mean that other quad bike safety measures can be ignored.
Employers need to make sure that anyone operating a quad bike wears a helmet and is properly trained to ride.
The bike needs to be maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions and only used for the purpose for which it was designed.
Passengers are a no go – this can upset the balance of the bike – and children under the age of 16 should never operate an adult-size quad bike.
So if you see your neighbour riding across a steep hill on a quad bike that has no OPD, or riding down to get the cows in thongs, a tank top and no helmet, or letting their 10-year-old who can barely reach the brakes ride the bike down the paddock, call it out.
Ask them why they haven’t taken up the rebate for OPDs, or whether they have heard the stories about kids who have been crushed under a quad bike, or suffered a serious injury after it has rolled.
That one moment of awkward conversation for you may mean one less heartbreak for someone you know, and one less Code Yellow for us to dread.
# Marnie Williams is the executive director of Health Safety at WorkSafe Victoria
NOTE: This post was edited on October 26 at the request of WorkSafe Victoria. A paragraph which initially read: “This means that if a quad bike is being used in a workplace – and there is a risk of rollover – the employer must fit the bike with an OPD” has been updated with: “This means that if a quad bike is being used in a workplace – and there is a risk of rollover – the employer must consider fitting the bike with an OPD to eliminate or reduce the risk so far is reasonably practicable.”