How we nearly lost “Papa” this Father’s Day

Today started well with freshly-baked ginger biscuits and special gifts wrapped with far too much sticky tape but almost ended with tragedy.

Wayne was guiding a calf out from among the herd towards the shed when time stopped, or at least slowed. As the blow under his left arm pit hurled him two metres across the cow yard, he had time to think “I’ll pull my head down, I’m going to hit the fence” and then, “oh no, this is it, my hips are exploding”. Then, bang, onto the concrete.

With the footy blaring from the dairy radio, Wayne lay very still right where he’d landed for a long, long time – five minutes, he thinks – and wondered what to do next. There was pain in his ribs, neck, back and hips. A tiny bit of blood in his mouth but, yes, his teeth were all okay.

In the end, the only thing to do was try to get up and, thankfully, he did.

Wayne had no warning of the collision and we’ll never know for sure what happened down at the dairy this Father’s Day. Doped up on painkillers, swathed in Deep Heat and wrapped up in blankets, but he’s alive.

Because diesel is the new asbestos

Diesel Bobcat without windscreen

Breezy is beautiful

Diesel fumes have always left me feeling sick and it turns out my queasiness is justified. A report in the West Australian explains:

“Researchers from the WA Institute for Medical Research and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that children with fathers who were exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work about the time of conception were 62 per cent more likely to have brain tumours.”

“The results, published in the International Journal of Cancer, also showed that children of women exposed to diesel fumes at work before the birth had twice the risk of brain tumours.”

Scary stuff? Yes. According to the WHO, diesel is the new asbestos.

“Experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) say diesel engine exhaust fumes can cause cancer in humans. They say they belong in the same potentially deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas.”

We are lucky to live far from city pollution but we do have a diesel car, diesel tractor and diesel UTV that gets me and the kids around the farm. That new UTV came with a roof and windscreen – a combination that, ironically, may have threatened our children’s health. Unfortunately, it seems the windscreen created negative pressure and built up a vacuum that sucks air from behind and around the UTV back over the cabin. With it came a lot of dust and a strong smell of diesel fumes.

The windscreen is now stacked neatly against a garage wall and we are breathing easy once more.

How to get farmers wearing helmets on quad bikes

With my hair plastered to my head with sweat and feeling woozy, I conceded defeat. I’d been rounding up in 30 degree heat on a quad bike with a road bike helmet on and just couldn’t do it. At 2 km/hr behind 250 cows, each literally giving off the same amount of heat as a 1500 watt hair dryer, sitting astride a hot engine, the heat got to me and I was not far from passing out.

Road bike helmets are designed for use on bitumen at high speed and have no effective ventilation at speeds of one to three kilometres per hour. Having one strapped on in this type of environment could be lethal.

Why had I been so stupid, you ask? Because I was trying to do what the regulators would have me do and, as an employer, insist everyone else does it too. And yet I’m in The Weekly Times today saying we all wear helmets here; I won’t let our kids on quads; and that we have Quadbars on our bikes.

What the story doesn’t explain is that I won’t wear a road bike helmet. This seems to be something of a taboo and sadly, this means many farmers ride quad bikes without a helmet at all and simply hope nobody gets hurt.

This situation has arisen because:

–     Quad bike manuals stipulate the wearing of a road bike helmet that meets Australian Standard AS1618

-`    An Australian Standards committee dominated by helmet manufacturers refused to ratify a New Zealand off-road quad bike helmet standard.

I would never argue that riding quad bikes on farm – even at slow speed – without a helmet should be permitted but far lighter helmets are legal in much more hazardous circumstances.

Thousands ride pushbikes down Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfares at 40 kilometres an hour alongside semi-trailers wearing very light, yet legal, helmets. Thousands more ride horses equally as fast wearing cool helmets strong enough to withstand a collision with horse hoofs and a fall onto a hard surface at speeds of up to 55km/hr.

And that’s been our solution: we’ve chosen a light, really well ventilated equestrian helmet. Everyone here wears them without complaint whatever the weather, all of the time.

While many WorkSafe inspectors appreciate the hazards created by wearing road bike helmets for low-speed agricultural use, they are hamstrung by the absence of a specific standard. A new Australian Standard seems destined to be stymied by cost and disregard of the realities by those who work in air-conditioned offices rather than hot paddocks.

 

Painful fall as Ball Face ousted as king of the bulls

The farm’s most aggressive bull has reigned for about two years as no other bull, even those who stood several inches taller, were as mean as Ball Face.

Wayne put him in the bull paddock last night. This morning Ball Face was missing. We discovered snapped wires along the laneway and figured the grader had clipped the fence, shorting out the power, so after the afternoon rounding up, it fell to me and the kids to restore the circuit and find the errant king while Wayne milked.

I fixed the laneway and found Ball Face and Fernando in the newly planted-out wetland. Aargh! Not my precious revegetation!!! The pair of them had left a trail of sagging wires and were busily roughing up some melaleucas. Can you spot them?

BullsInWetland

I sallied forth armed with a pigtail post and a long piece of poly pipe, leaving strict instructions for Zoe to stay on top of the Bobcat. I tried to look big and summoned my growliest voice. Magically, the two of them hopped out quite obediently. All that was left was to strain the three wires and turn the fence back on. Until this.

BallFaceChase

No one bull may have been game to take Ball Face on but a pack of them wanted him dead. Shrieking but quick, Zoe snapped this pic as the group charged towards us and I scrambled back onto the Bobcat. They thundered right around us and pursued Ball Face, literally pushing him through the fence (again) a hundred metres further up the paddock.

The fence strainer got a workout and then it was off, again, with pigtail post and poly pipe to remove Ball Face from his refuge. The gang stayed close to the fence and it was painfully obvious they would give him the medicine all over again, so I put him on the far side of the wetland, nine strands of hotwire away.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a king deposed by a gang. Normally, it happens when an upstart matures, challenging the patriarch to a one-on-one duel with the rest watching. But then, Ball Face is something extraordinary. Maybe it really is time for him to go.

OHS inductions for the city cousins?

“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.

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones

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.

Tragic irony

I cannot imagine finding a child killed on the farm yet this is perhaps Australia’s most dangerous backyard. One of the things we do to keep Zoe and Alex safe is to keep them off quad bikes.

According to Safety Around Farms:

“ATVs are the most common cause of death for children 5-14 yrs on farms. Between 2001-2004, 12 children died on ATV’s in Australia and many more were hospitalised with serious injuries, 50% of these children were visitors to farms. (National Farm Injury Data Centre, 2007)”

That’s why I have a Bobcat UTV. Problem is, it’s only a two-seater and Alex is getting to the stage where he likes to stand in his child carrier and give me loving kisses on the face while I am driving. Hardly ideal.

I’m in the process of upgrading to a three-seater so little man can be strapped in more safely beside me rather than on me. Among the options is the Polaris Ranger Diesel and here’s the promo for it:

Buy this big machine to keep your kids safe and we’ll give you a small machine to keep your kids #%@

Do you see the irony of it? I rang Polaris HQ to see if I could get more family-friendly Ranger accessories – like a roof and windscreen – instead of the dangerous machine for little children. No, certainly not.

I asked the marketing manager a raft of quite pointed questions about the safety of the little machine. He couldn’t answer them. It seems certain he hadn’t read this from the Canadian Paediatric Society:

“While industry guidelines suggest that children under 16 years of age should only operate youthsized models, these vehicles are still heavy and can travel at significant speeds. Also, a higher centre of gravity contributes to instability, making ATVs prone to flips or rollovers.”

“Currently,there is little evidence to suggest that smaller youth models are safer when used by children. US CPSC injury data from 2001 showed that the risk of injury per number of driving hours for an operator under the age of 16 is reduced by only 18% when driving a youth-model ATV with an engine size of 200 cc.

“In addition, the level of risk for a child or adolescent operating a youth-model ATV is still almost twice as high as for an adult on a larger machine; the risk of injury to a youth using a smaller machine is also five times higher than the risk to an adult on a machine of the same size.”

In other words, don’t think your child is safe on a quad bike of any size.

The Polaris kids’ quad may be free but it could be Aussie kids who pay the ultimate price for this corporation’s cynical grab for market share.

How a farmer hangs out her washing (or desperation is the mother of invention)

At 15 months, Alex loves “riding” the quad bike.

The little man is drawn to anything he can climb, toot or wobble, especially if it has buttons and the quad has all those magical qualities with the added bonus that it’s his Dad’s.

The mite’s adventurousness is only slightly hampered by his wet blanket of a Mama. When Wayne bought Zoe a hot pink mini-quad for Christmas last year, I refused to let him bring it home. Quads are seriously dangerous bits of gear and, besides, a pushie is still the best way to burn up all that excess energy.

But whether it was out of sheer exhaustion or the joie de vivre that comes with the first truly warm day of Spring, I relented just a touch today and took Alex for an illicit ride on the quad. As we’d passed the quad with the washing basket, he’d somehow become firmly attached to the Suzuki’s grimy plastic faring. A moment later, his padded posterior was straddling the gear shift.

It turns out that the trip from the laundry to the washing line with a toddler is gloriously smooth-sailing when you’re riding a quad – albeit at a snail’s pace. It also turns out that the quad makes an excellent table for the washing basket and is just the right height for pegging up everything from unmentionables to our Sunday best. Don’t tell anyone, will you?

The poison farm

The Poison Garden is an oddly captivating blog on many weird and wonderful poisonous plants. Since spending some time there, I’ve realised our dairy yard is ringed by hemlock – the deadly plant Socrates drank as his death sentence.

I was thrilled when The Poison Garden’s author, John Robertson, agreed to write this post for the Milk Maid Marian.

The only type of question I dread about poisonous plants begins ‘Should I remove…?’ You can’t say that it is fine to leave the plant(s) alone because that’s sure to mean the questioner’s dog ends up dead within a few weeks but it has to be remembered that, in the majority of cases, the plant concerned has been growing in gardens, parks or open country for hundreds of years and rarely, if ever, caused a problem.

But what about farmland? Loss of a beloved pet may be heart-rending but loss of a herd of cattle because of some unrecognised risk could bring financial ruin on top of the emotional upset.

Instances of poisoning due to plants are, thankfully, rare but they do happen and they do happen more with farm animals than anything else. Just this week, I saw this (pdf) report of an incident in the Republic of Ireland where a herd of cattle fell ill, and some died, three weeks after being turned out to a new pasture. Thorough investigations proved that the cause was ensiled ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris, in the feed the animals had been given prior to being let out but it would have been natural to assume that there must have been something in that new pasture since the cattle showed no signs of illness prior to their release.

Ragwort

The buttery yellow flowers of ragwort

I mentioned this case to Esther Hegt who runs the website ‘Ragwort, myths and facts’ and she replied by telling me about a case some years ago in the Netherlands where 250 cattle suffered ragwort poisoning after being fed hay that was badly contaminated with ragwort.

So what should a farmer do? Well, as I said at the start these poisonous plants have been around for a very long time and only rarely do harm. That may be because the taste deters consumption in normal times or it may be that the animal has evolved not to be attracted to a particular plant. Especially in this age where bio-diversity is king and farmers are expected to protect the environment and feed people, it is not possible to tour every inch of land and remove anything that just might cause problems.

What is important is to be on the lookout for the unusual. The recent poisoning of a Chinese chef in Canberra occurred when an exceptional spell of weather produced fruiting bodies on the Amanita phalloides, death cap mushroom, at the ‘wrong’ time of year and past incidents involving cattle often result from something different happening. A very dry spell early in the spring leading to the ground shrinking and exposing the roots of Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, resulted in deaths in cattle though the same pasture had been used for many years with no trouble.

Hemlock

The pretty yet deadly hemlock rings Milk Maid Marian's dairy

Of course, the other thing that can lead to poisoning incidents is lack of knowledge. A number of incidents have occurred when people didn’t realise that Taxus baccata, yew, or Nerium oleander, oleander, were toxic and thought they were being helpful by feeding clippings from these plants to farm, or zoo, animals.

Something different is mostly the cause of one of these rare incidents so it is worth saying that there is something different about modern farming where, perhaps, not enough consideration is being given to possible plant poisonings.

Whether as a commercial venture or in order to be more transparent about farming practices, more farmers are inviting the public onto their farms. It is almost certainly worth spending a couple of minutes making sure those visitors understand why they shouldn’t feed treats, of any sort, to any of the animals they will meet during their visit.

How many kids die on Australian farms each year? Each week?

You can see from my blog that I take our children pretty much everywhere with me on the farm. The thing is, there are places I no longer go, so they can stay safe. I don’t milk, I don’t get into the yard when it’s full of cows and I avoid situations where cattle of any age are moving quickly in confined spaces.

I can make these choices because we can afford to pay other people to help but not every farmer can. And out here, the town’s youngest children have access to just two hours’ formal care per week.

If you don’t have an extended family willing and able to help, you might feel there’s little choice but to leave the kids playing by the gate or sitting in the ute while you do a risky job. This is how farm safety and childcare are so tightly connected. There’s nothing bourgeoise about needing childcare to drench the heifers or build a fence.

The impact of a lack of childcare on a farming community is tricky to gauge but the unfathomable grief that seeps through a community after the death of a child is something that resonates in your bones for many years. According to the stats, one child is killed on an Australian farm every fortnight.

I wouldn’t normally include a whole slab of stats but these, from the Aghealth Australia site, are so telling:

A recent study by the National Farm Injury Data Centre (NFIDC) based at AgHealth of on-farm fatalities for the 2001-2004 period found that:

Children (0-14yrs) make up 15-20% of farm injury deaths, around 2/3 are male. Main agents are:

  • Drowning in dams (mostly under five year olds)
  • Quad bikes or 4 wheeled motorbikes
  • Farm vehicles (cars, utes)
  • Around quarter of all child deaths were visitors to the farm, but for quad bikes around ½ are visitors
  • Drowning accounts for around 35-40% on child farm deaths, with farm dams being by far the most common site.

There has been an improvement in the reduction of toddler drowning on farms in recent years – particularly a reduction of dam drownings, which have halved since the early nineties. However, drowning is still the number one cause of child farm fatality in Australia. A common scenario is that a toddler wanders away from the home un-noticed into farm water bodies or toward other farm hazards (vehicles, mobile machinery). Apart from dams, children can find their way into creeks, troughs, dips and channels. Children under five years are at greatest risk.

For non-fatal injury of children on farms, older children (5 -15 yrs) figure more prominently – particularly in relation to injury from 2 and 4 wheeled motorbikes (and horses). Whilst there tend to be more hospital ED presentations for 2 wheeled motorbikes, injuries from quad bikes are likely to be more severe or fatal, with 4 times as many children being killed off ATV’s than 2 wheel motorbikes on farms (NFIDC 2007).

Quad bike manufacturers look like Big Tobacco

Quadbar

Crush protection devices will save farmers' lives

Just like Big Tobacco before it, the quad bike industry has been adamant its machinery is not responsible for the deaths of Australian farmers – rather that they got themselves killed.

The Weekly Times and SafetyOzBlog have reported the gyrations of the manufacturers and their representatives, the FCAI, which even included forcing some sponsored riders to remove crush protection devices. They claimed that the only answer was more rider education and that rider error was almost invariably the cause of the 23 deaths on farm ATVs in 2011 so far.

I thought it was all over bar the shouting match when The Weekly Times reported that the FCAI had dropped its opposition to Australia’s crush protection device, the Quadbar. Then I heard that at least one manufacturer has advised its dealers that its position is unchanged.

Now, the SafetyOzBlog carries this media release from the respected and independent Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety tearing strips off the FCAI for failing to correct what the ACCC described as misleading and deceptive conduct.

“Embarrassing or not, the families of those people killed and permanently injured in such rollover events have a right to know why the FCAI, as suggested by the ACCC, has not only misrepresented the evidence but why they have not addressed this issue in a timely manner. The inaction and questionable approach of both the FCAI and manufacturers is showing complete disregard for the safety of their customers.”

People on our farms are dying. No matter who is responsible for the rollovers, the Quadbar is estimated to protect between one in four and one in three people. It’s worth it.

For more information on quad bike safety, call the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (02 6752 8210) or visiting the website at www.aghealth.org.au