It is one of our cultural stereotypes: the rugged, versatile,
no-nonsense farmer - the sort of person for whom most
regulations are made by townies for townies who have no real
understanding of the demands and constraints of a working
life in the country; and, further, how the red tape that such
people unhesitatingly impose on the rural sector can
seriously impact on proven working methods and productivity.
In no other sphere is this more pronounced, or more
irritating to some, than on-farm safety: the rules and
regulations promulgated by the Department of Labour,
Occupational Safety and Health and ACC are frequently seen as
at best a brake on freedom and individual responsibility and,
at worst, the interfering actions of bureaucrats and the
Sadly, the reality is that such organisations have reason to
According to the latest figures released by ACC, farmers are
killing themselves in work-related accidents at the rate of
one every 28 days.
Last year, 13 farmers died in accidents on New Zealand farms.
There were 18,600 injuries on farms, with quad bikes, farm
machinery and poor animal handling featuring as the most
Almost 1700 farm workers were injured in incidents arising
out of cattle handling, and more than 300 hurt in tractor
accidents - just yesterday, a 51-year-old Airedale man was
flown to Dunedin Hospital by the Otago Regional Rescue
Helicopter after his tractor and a trailer went over a bluff
on a North Otago farm.
Oamaru police Sergeant Wayne Brew said it was believed the
man suffered a hip injury and he was lucky to have escaped
These figures, if applied to any other industry, would have
accounted for an eruption of angst, sorrow and consternation
in equal proportions among the general populace.
But partly because the farming industry largely comprises
owner-operators, or small enterprises and employers, and
partly for the cultural reasons alluded to, this industry is
regarded as different from most.
The thresholds of risk and what might be regarded as
dangerous working practices are of an alternative order to
those required, and policed, in urban industrial quarters.
Should they be? One view might be that farmers, who know
their land, their animals and their equipment a great deal
better than any law-maker should be allowed to set their own
behavioural and farming practice boundaries.
It might be argued, and is in some quarters, that they mostly
endanger only themselves if they then overstep the mark.
But quite apart from the unanticipated personal grief and
hardship that no-one would wish upon any farming family, and
which is the natural consequence of tragedy or on-farm
fatalities, there are broader social and economic
One is the loss of productivity to the local and national
economies; another is the fiscal impost of claims as a result
According to ACC, tractor, cattle and quad-bike accidents
cost New Zealanders about $12.4 million a year in claims.
Thus, there are urgent social and economic imperatives to
reduce agricultural sector and on-farm accidents against
which resentment needs to be measured.
All risk cannot be removed from any endeavour, and this is
especially so of farming - which frequently involves some
combination of heavy machinery, livestock and terrain-related
But the same risks can be reduced by sensible precautions and
educative initiatives which seek to influence attitude and
ACC has just released three new booklets on tips for handling
cattle, driving tractors and controlling quad bikes to help
farmers avoid preventable injury.
The advice contained may be regarded by some as gratuitous,
by others patronising, and by others still as conceivably
But there is almost always a hint of defensiveness in sector
lobby-group responses to such moves.
Research conducted at the University of Otago has forecast
that in any given year farm workers will lose control of quad
bikes on about 12,645 occasions, resulting in about 1400
The response of Federated Farmers to any push for tighter
controls on quad-bike usage tends to acknowledge safety
concerns but emphasises the need for common sense and
highlights the recreational use, and associated accident
casualties, of such "all-terrain vehicles".
Doubtless this reflects a mindset in the rural communities
they represent, but in the longer term, especially if on-farm
accidents continue to rise above the already alarming rate,
it will do little to shift behaviour.
And if behaviours do not change, the farming industry will
have only itself to blame if eventually the legislators feel
they have no choice but to step in.