“City cousin season” is fast approaching for many farmers. It’s a time we look forward to here but we do have to be extra careful. With new safety laws emphasising the need to include volunteers and visitors to the farm in safety systems, I asked Kevin Jones, OHS consultant, freelance writer and editor of the award-winning SafetyAtWorkBlog.com what it all means.
Some media has been reporting anger and outrage about the Government imposing new work health and safety duties on small business, volunteers, farmers and many others. There are new safety laws in many States but largely these reflect the moral and safety responsibilities that have always existed. If farms have been doing the right thing in the past, they are likely to be doing the right thing in the future.
OHS laws are always going to be seen as an imposition from the city when things were pretty good the way they were. Things may have seemed to be pretty good but plenty of families lost relatives in farm accidents, many lost limbs or struggle to cope with economic stress. There is plenty of statistical evidence to show that things in the country weren’t as good as many thought and the Government felt obliged to act. Perhaps the original work health and safety laws, developed in the cities in the 1980s, were not suited to the country or the application of these laws needed a different approach from that in the city. But the intention of these laws is always to reduce harm, injury, death and the related impacts on farming families.
These occupational health and safety (OHS) laws may also require paperwork but so does public liability insurance, Business Activity Statements, and a range of other paperwork all businesses are obliged to provide. Paperwork has always felt to be a major distraction to why we set up our businesses in the first place.
Over the last twenty years OHS laws have broadened from the physically-defined workplace to include the impact of work on others such as visitors, neighbours and customers. But the workplace has also changed to an extent where it is hard to know where a workplace starts and a workplace ends. Many in the city struggle with these laws but farming communities have always worked with an almost invisible delineation between a workplace and a home. Where others went outside for a smoke, farmers often went for a smoke and checked on the animals. Farmers are hardly ever not working, and this means that farms are almost always workplaces, so when visitors come to the farm for a weekend break, they are visiting a workplace and so OHS laws will apply.
This unreal demarcation is a major reason why the new laws focus on Work and not the workplace. Dealing primarily with the work activity focuses on the reduction of harm to the worker rather than making a workplace safe. Often the best, most tidy, most organised workplaces still had unsafe work being done.
Do the new laws mean that all visitors require a safety induction before entering the farm and to sign a document saying they understand the rules? Usually, no, but if they come to undertake farming activities (ie. work), maybe there should be an introduction to the farm – where to go, where not to go, what to touch, what not, what to drive, what to keep away from. Maybe the signs in the milking shed need to be written for visitors instead of in family shorthand. Maybe pits should be covered instead of assuming the pit will be in the same state next morning.
If WorkSafe is called to a farm, for whatever reason, showing the inspectors that you know about your OHS obligations and apply basic safety procedures to equipment, tractors, quad bikes, and industrial and agricultural chemicals is going to reassure them that you know what you’re on about and that you are active about managing the safety of your workers, visitors and family. Will you be found to be in compliance with the OHS laws? Probably not, but neither are most of the small businesses in the cities either.
OHS is often dismissed as only common sense. But OHS is almost always common sense, after an incident. Why didn’t we cover that pit? Why did I leave the keys in the quad bike? Why didn’t I chain up the dog when I knew kids were coming over? These and many other daily questions are all made safer through the common sense of covering or fencing the pit, hanging up the keys, chaining the dog. If safety is only common sense why then don’t we apply it?
The new Work Health and Safety laws are not yet active in all States and Safe Work Australia, or your local OHS regulators, are a good place to watch and see if and when these laws apply to specific circumstances and industries.