This very stylish cow is modelling Milk Maid fashions for the day. The hat, sunnies, first aid kit stashed in the Bobcat glovebox and sunscreen don’t need any explanation but the boots might.
I might be a bit of a chicken but reckon I’ve had about a dozen “near death experiences” with snakes. Never been bitten, never want to. Hence, the horribly hot but impenetrable footwear. Maybe it’s time to invest in some gaiters!
In the midst of a wild storm that pelted the farm with hailstones the size of Maltesers, Wayne texted me a photo from the dairy. That was unusual. I only ever get texts from the dairy when there’s been a disaster.
The first of 14 rows
It all looked okay on my phone’s tiny screen, so I literally shrugged my shoulders, put it down to a fit of boyish exuberance over the hail and turned my attention back to making dinner and the four-year-old yanking at my shirt.
It all became clearer when Wayne arrived home at half past eight.
W: Did you get my text?
M: Yeah, what a hail storm!
W: (Rolling of eyes) So, you didn’t look at it.
M: Yeah, we saw the hail up here too, the kids wanted to go out there and eat it!
W: (zooming into a section of the picture on his phone) Have a closer look…
M: When did that happen?
W: (Look of pride) First row.
M: First row?! What did you do?
W: I had my face close to a cow, putting on the cups, when I felt something fall on the top of my boot. I just kicked it off without really thinking about it, expecting it to be a piece of rubber or something that had come loose. But when it didn’t feel stiff enough, I looked down and saw it f*@#&ing wriggle away.
For a minute, I just stood there frozen, then grabbed a bit of poly pipe and tried to whack it but the pipe got snagged in the gear above the pit. I hosed it up the other end of the pit and let it eat frogs. Every time it came too close, I hosed it again.
M: But how did you get rid of it?
W: I didn’t. It’ll probably find its own way out or Clarkie’ll find it in the morning. I’ve written a note on the whiteboard.
While Wayne was brought up in the city, Clarkie is a genuine bushman. I’ve seen him pick up a huntsman spider like it was a hamster and the man really can command a lasso and crack a stockwhip off the back of a horse. Wayne’s theory was Clarkie’d think nothing of milking cows in a snake pit.
M: (Incredulous) And what if he doesn’t read the whiteboard? And what if the thing winds itself around the stainless steel and gets him in the goolies? And what if he can’t see it at 6am and spends the whole milking semi-petrified wondering where it is? Clarkie’s good but, come on, Wayne!
W: Well, I’ll ring him now and let him know.
Obviously, Wayne and I have different OHS management styles.
While Wayne was phoning Clarkie (who apparently just laughed, whether that was hysterically or not, I can’t say), I was phoning a snake catcher.
About an hour and 20 minutes’ drive away, Jeff from VenomWise was the closest snake catcher I could find. The man was amazing. I told him I thought we had a copperhead in the dairy and that it had to be gone before 6am. It was already 9pm and all he said was: “I’ll leave right now but could you do me a favour and have someone keep an eye on him so I know where to find him?”
Since my mother was here for a rare one-night’s visit, Wayne insisted he would go on snake duty. So, taking a packet of cheezels, he pulled up a seat in the silent, empty milking platform to watch over his reptilian dairy hand.
This was the next text:
I made a morale-boosting call.
M: Is he good company?
W: (Animated) Did you see where he is? I couldn’t see him when I came in, so I went down into the pit to have a look and thought he’d gone until I came back up to the steps. I’ve just walked over the bloody thing!
M: (Belly laugh) Just stay on the platform, eat your Cheezels and stay away from the fridge, for God’s sake!
This text came through a few minutes later:
Another morale-boosting call was in order:
M: You’re getting freaked out by a huntsman?
W: I leant over the steps to have a closer look at the snake and as I held onto the banister, this bloody thing ran over my hand.
W: (Said with passion) This is a f*@$ing creepy joint!
Wayne’s lonely vigil finally came to a close at 10.30pm when, true to his word, Jeff from VenomWise arrived. Jeff suspected the metre-long snake probably fell from the rafters when the hail hit.
Wayne may not be a bushman but I’m proud of a man who milks for three hours in a snake pit and then misses dinner to sit with it for another hour and a half to make sure his mate’s safe in the morning.
It all happened in slow motion. I was walking across the paddock to offer our vet, Sarah, a light steel pigtail post for protection when the cow we were so desperately trying to save squared up to me, lowered her head and charged.
I managed to strafe her face once with the spring steel rod but it did nothing to deter her. Collecting me under the chin with her neck, she effortlessly threw her pathetic matador into the air. Luckily, I was not trampled; as my head hit the ground I saw her white belly soar through the sky as she cantered off towards the distant corner of the paddock.
I stood up, sobbing, laughing and shaking. My jaw sat unnervingly askew and my head was already sore but I was still alive and walking.
After three x-rays and a CAT scan, I’m home again, neck in a brace and feeling chastened for the anxiety I caused my ashen-faced children, who witnessed the whole thing. So, what went wrong?
The cow was a terrified first-time calver (“heifer”) in big trouble. She’d been down for a couple of hours with a rotten calf inside and sprang up miraculously the moment Sarah arrived.
1. My instincts were right that she was cranky but I didn’t know her and should have been triply careful.
2. I got off the Bobcat and walked to the vet. Why oh why didn’t I drive to the vet?
3. The vet was on the ground instead of in the Bobcat. I’d already called for extra help on wheels and if we’d waited another five minutes, this would never have happened. A vet’s time is valuable but not more valuable than life itself.
In other words, I was in a rush and took unnecessary risks in the name of getting the job done even though I pride myself on being very safety-conscious. The latest WorkSafe statistics prove dairy farming is agriculture’s most dangerous job: please learn from my mistakes and take care out there.
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.
“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.