WorkSafe Vic to get tough on quad bikes

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

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.

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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
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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.”

A quad bike helmet that really, truly works for dairy farmers

HQHelmet

This new helmet for quad-bike-riding farmers will save lives because it works. Not just because it’s tough and protective but because it’s not the sort of helmet you rip off as soon as you’re out of sight of the boss.

Most farmers refuse to wear helmets and I can understand why. I’ve tried wearing a road bike helmet (in line with official expectations) to bring the cows home on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. A road bike protects your head alright – that is, for the few minutes before heat exhaustion sets in.

Road bike helmets are made for riding motor bikes on a road, fast. Not at 2km/hr behind 250 cows, each throwing out the same body heat as a 1500kW hair dryer (I’m not joking, they do).

As a result, we’d decided to wear equestrian helmets compliant with AS/NZS 3838. Designed to protect a rider from a nasty fall at speed, they provide more protection than a pushbike helmet and better ventilation than a motor bike helmet.

Why hadn’t we chosen a helmet rated for agricultural quad bike use, you ask? Because there wasn’t one. New Zealand has developed such a standard – NZS 8600 All Terrain Vehicle Helmets – but, for reasons I can’t fathom, Australia has not adopted it or chosen to follow suit. Australian inspectors will still expect you to wear a road bike helmet, unless you can prove you have done a proper risk assessment.

Despite it all, the Quadbar people have finally designed and made a helmet especially for Australian farmers, the HQ Stockman 2. We were sent a complimentary sample helmet to test on the farm. Suffice to say, Wayne’s old equestrian helmet is gathering dust and we’ll be buying another Stockman.

The helmet is light and comfortable enough to forget you’re wearing it and the ventilation is just as good as the equestrian helmets we’ve been using.

Equestrian helmet (left) vs Stockman (right)

Equestrian helmet (left) vs Stockman (right)

What it has over the equestrian helmets is added protection. The HQ Stockman 2 meets NZS 8600 standard as recommended by both the Queensland and NSW coroners.

The helmet is so strong, it passes the test used to gauge the protectiveness of road bike helmets, although only based on one impact, rather than two, as Quadbar’s Dave Robertson explains:

“The ‘Impact energy attenuation test’ is the same test for the Australian motorcycle (and USA DOT motorcycle) standards however the test is repeated a second time on each location on the helmet for motorcycle helmets,” Mr Robertson said.

“Helmet expert, Dr Terry Smith form California USA, at the Qld coroner’s inquest went to a lot of trouble to explain that the second test is to ensure protection in a case where the ‘head strikes twice in the same location’ and MUST not be interpreted as providing double the protection. The speed impact is the same on both tests and the protection must be below 300g. The level of protection of a motorcycle helmet is in the fact that it can withstand a second impact on the same location on the helmet which is more likely at higher speeds. It (motorcycle helmet) is not tested at a higher speed than NZS 8600 however will most likely withstand multiple impacts.”

If you’re riding a quad on the farm without a helmet, get a Stockman. It’s the sort of helmet you forget to take off and it might just save your neck.

EDIT: A helmet compliant with NZS 8600 called the AgHat came on the market a couple of years ago but we didn’t adopt it at our farm because it had no ventilation.

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.