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.”

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.