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.”

Coles Farmers’ Fund is anything but a fund for farmers by farmers

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The Coles Farmers’ Fund is perfect material for a stand-up comedian really.

Step 1. Using your massive market power, you send the price of milk down, down, down and dismiss the pleadings of farmers as ignorance.

Step 2. Next, you secure a 10-year deal with MG to source cheap milk while saying it’s a great deal for farmers.

Step 3. When history brings MG’s credibility to its knees and farmers down with it, consumers fall out of love with cheap milk and Coles. So what do you do?:

a) respond by restoring the price of milk to sustainable levels; OR
b) maintain the discount on milk and begin a “Down, down…” campaign targeting cheese as well; OR
c) come up with a farmer-endorsed PR stunt that costs you nothing but wins you back sales lost to branded products?

Well, bless you Coles. Presented with the easy option of permanently fixing the problem you created with solution a) you’ve instead gone with a devilish combination of b) and c).

Call me an ungrateful, whingeing farmer but…
I think I have cause for concern. The Coles Farmers’ Fund has been designed by Coles marketing executives for Coles, not farmers:

  • The cheap milk has brought the value of all milk down (check the numbers for yourself in my previous post) and no more milk is sold today than before Coles drove the price down. This Farmers’ Fund will do nothing to address the cause of the problem.
  • Only a few farmers will be awarded any funding – not the thousands who need a fair price.
  • The fund only applies to farm improvements and, this year, most farmers are in survival mode – money is needed to pay the basic bills. Farmers simply need to be paid a proper price for their milk.
  • A group of unnamed VFF people will decide who receives the funds. Transparency and accountability is sorely lacking.
  • Only the consumers who care about farmers will buy this milk, so it’s likely to further damage branded milk sales, redirecting sales straight back to Coles.

Contempt for dairy leaders
And it didn’t even matter that the peak dairy bodies were apparently opposed to the stunt: Coles simply gazumped the United Dairy Farmers of Victoria and Australian Dairy Farmers by garnering endorsement by the VFF. A stunning coup for Coles. A sickening own goal by the VFF.

Call me an ungrateful, whingeing hypocrite of a farmer but…
After first deciding against applying to the Farmers’ Fund, I changed my mind.

Fellow farmer Dianne Bowles argued convincingly that as many farmers as possible should apply, demonstrating the need for support and the value that even small change for a supermarket can have on farm. So there, it’s done.

This may have been a very expensive blog post for me and my family but one I simply had to write. If I get funding, I’ll be quick to let you know.

UPDATE 26/10/16: I was astonished to receive a preliminary email today advising that our farm has been successful with its application. If you haven’t already submitted an application, I highly recommend you do for the next round. Thank you to the VFF committee for approving our project.

Help for our dairy farmers and their cows

There certainly is light at the end of the financial tunnel for dairy farmers but many are still finding the going incredibly difficult.

I’m a tough old stick but there have been times in the last few months where things unravelled a bit before I could piece myself together again, so I know how it feels first-hand. For me, the saving grace has been to get help from our expert farm consultant, Neil, and build an action plan to insulate the cows from the fodder shortage.

It’s gone beyond that for some farmers who are in desperate positions. I asked Dairy Australia’s issues manager, Julie Iommi, what the dairy farming representative bodies are doing to help.

1. Anyone wishing to donate fodder or funds to buy fodder – please contact the UDV/VFF on 1300 882 833. Want to help but have no hay of your own? Farmer mental health dynamo, Alison Fairleigh, has linked her handy blog to “Buy a Bale“, an initiative of Aussie Helpers, where anyone can donate time or money for fodder to go to people who are in dire straits.

2. VFF, supported by ADF, is pushing the state government to immediately review the resourcing to the Rural Financial Counselling network to ensure they have the capacity to deal with current demand.

3. VFF, supported by ADF, has asked the state and federal governments to introduce the low interest loan support program immediately.

4. The state and federal governments have also been requested to review other forms of emergency support immediately.

5. VFF and ADF are also pushing the state and federal agriculture Ministers to meet the bank sector to encourage them to continue to take the long-term view when assessing their support of farm businesses.

Dairy Australia is promoting the Taking Stock program, which can help dairy farmers review their individual situations and create their own action plans – Julie says there are still around 50 spots available.

DA also has good info on its site about coping with fodder shortages.

Last of all, if you know someone who might be battling to stay afloat, why not drop them a line, phone or do the good old-fashioned thing and turn up with a cake? It might be just the lifeline they need without you ever knowing it.