A dangerous occupation

Host: Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.
Written by Fiona O’Sullivan, Manager, Agriculture Unit, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

Today (28/4/17) is World Day for Safety and Health at Work and Workers’ Memorial Day, where we can reflect on how our actions can prevent work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses, and also remember those who have died from a work-related injury or illness.

In Australia, statistics tell us the agriculture industry is one of the most dangerous to work in. On average, more people die while working in this industry than other. If you have a serious injury, you are likely to need extended time off work, and if the injury is severe, there’s a fair chance you may not recover well enough to return to full capacity.

On the other hand, the agriculture industry is in an amazing growth phase – technology, science, investors, and innovative mindsets are taking the industry to a new level. There are new experiences, broader work opportunities, and ultimately, financial rewards on offer.

So where is the middle ground on the land? How do we attract new workers, retain those we have, and look after each other so we can all get stuck into the rewarding work, challenges, and opportunities out there?

Many businesses and agriculture setups in remote communities rely heavily on backpackers who have come to Australia for the experience of a lifetime. They’ve been lured by ads featuring kangaroos and koalas, watched in awe as the sun sets over a red sand dune and dreamt of going for a quick dive on the reef – all part of an exciting ‘down under’ adventure.

Unfortunately, when these ‘travelling dreamers’ chase the dollar here, they often fall victim to a small number of unscrupulous people who take advantage of language barriers, cultural differences, and the naivety of the backpacker. In this state, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, the Queensland Police Service and 10 other state and federal agencies such as Australian Border Force and the Fair Work Ombudsman have come together to tackle this dark side of ‘agri’ employment. We are chipping away, sharing information, and targeting the people who don’t do the right thing by their vulnerable employees. We are getting there, ever so slowly, but we need help. What’s required is a cultural shift to look after our backpackers and young workers as we would our own children.

Itinerant workers have been the victims of unscrupulous employers.

I often hear the phrase ‘they are only backpackers’ and it irks me to the core. They are visitors to the ‘lucky country’, prepared to roll up their sleeves and take on some pretty tough work, which others aren’t that keen to do. They spend their hard earnt dollars here, helping tick over local economies. But most importantly, they’re someone’s precious child who has chosen to come to our shores to work, learn and enjoy themselves. It would be un-Australian to let them down!

The industry needs these itinerant workers as much as they need the job. Without backpackers, many crops would be left to rot, children would go without nannies, and please don’t take this the wrong way, the bar service in remote pubs wouldn’t be quite the same. If you employ a backpacker, please do so with the same care as you would your own child, and if you see or hear of anyone taking advantage of them, speak up.

Safe Work Australia has valuable information on work health and safety, as well as workers’ compensation. It’s for workers who are new to Australia or not familiar with working here. The material is especially handy for those with little experience of Australian workplaces, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

The other issue I’d like to touch on is young workers in the agriculture industry. The ‘next generation’ make up a small portion of the labour force, but in some areas, particularly the livestock industry, they’re well represented. Unfortunately, they also attract high injury rates!

At the start of the year, I was a nervous mum (although the photo doesn’t really show it) when my then 15 year old son Angus started his first job as a stockman. Like all families, we just want to see our loved ones return home safely at the end of their shift!

WHSQ’s Fiona O’Sullivan and her son Angus ahead of his first day as a ringer/stockman.

Now we could go into a lengthy discussion on education, attitudes of young people or the fact they all seem to be focussed more on mobiles and social media than their surroundings. We were all young workers once. Just like the apprentice who was ordered to get a left-handed spanner or a face washer that fitted the butterfly nut! I, like a lot of pimple-faced trainees, came through those kind of ‘new starter’ jokes relatively unscathed and richer for the experience. Sadly, it’s not always that smooth.

Tiffany Ward is one very brave and courageous lady – a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and business owner. Tiffany hasn’t let horrific injuries define her. The scars and disfigurement from having both arms caught in an auger while at work, and the subsequent surgeries to patch her up, have definitely left their mark, but they haven’t dented her passion and drive for life. Tiffany spent around 40 minutes trapped in an auger with her arms above her head before being extracted from a potato processing machine. From there, she spent over 30 hours undergoing various surgeries for bone and skin grafts.

In this day and age, how could this happen? Sadly, it’s an all too familiar story. An eager young lady with a great work ethic heads to work one day. She’s new to her job, just 18 years old, and showing some initiative. Enthusiastically, the young lass goes to do a task on a machine that was unguarded. Like most workplace incidents, it happens in an instant. Tiffany’s story is well worth checking out!

This happens far too regularly. Young workers need more attention than others, they need greater supervision and we need to make sure they understand how to do their job properly so they don’t get injured under your watch.

So how do we prevent such a horrific incident from happening at our own workplaces?

Get some good safety advice from a well-respected person in your industry, use your local safety regulator as a starting point, and if you don’t have any luck, phone WHSQ. Search the internet, shop around, use your industry associations, and do your homework. I am often asked where to start. Well, the first step is a simple – commit to change. The rest will follow. Ultimately, the goal is for everyone to stay safe at their workplace. Begin by having a good look at the work that’s being done, review how it’s been done, and the equipment and processes used. Then you need to talk. If you employ people, you need to provide enough information so they understand how to do their jobs properly. You may need to change the culture at your workplace and ensure safety is as much of a priority as getting the job done.

WHSQ and other agencies working closely to combat the exploitation of itinerant workers.

Work safe, farm safe, home safe.

For general safety advice, visit the WHSQ website or call 1300 362 128.