Inviting regulation?

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 "politically correct".

Sadly, the reality is that such organisations have reason to be concerned.

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 common causes.

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 serious injury.

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 considerations.

One is the loss of productivity to the local and national economies; another is the fiscal impost of claims as a result of accidents.

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 challenge.

But the same risks can be reduced by sensible precautions and educative initiatives which seek to influence attitude and working practice.

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 useful.

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 injuries.

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.