The real value of a safe farm sector extends well beyond the farmgate.
In an industry rated as one of Australia’s three most dangerous, agricultural services companies and other corporate players are all too aware of the human and financial costs which can befall their business and their farmer customers, quite by accident.
For a start, in pure hip pocket terms, a significant safety mishap could potentially leave company directors personally liable for fines worth up to $600,000 each, or serving a prison sentence.
Listed agribusinesses from fertiliser makers to fish farmers now go to great lengths to highlight their successes in reducing lost time injuries.
Every week I’m asking our team to work hard, but stay safe.
Good workplace safety also has a direct correlation with improved company profitability, says Elders managing director, Mark Allison.
“If you promote a healthy business culture of transparency, tight processes and no shortcuts, I believe it actually translates into a proactive mindset around personal safety and the safety of others around you,” he said.
“That’s been the case for Elders, and in other agribusinesses I’ve been part of.
“Every week I’m asking our team to work hard, but stay safe.”
The rural services company boss is also convinced a proactive safety attitude at Elders and other similar companies, rubs off on farmer customers and contractors.
“If people see you are serious, it becomes part of the conversation,” Mr Allison said.
“It might be the way we talk about identifying or storing and handling chemicals, the way our people do their job in stockyards or just wearing sunscreen,” he said.
Avoiding the risks
Quad bikes were not necessarily more potentially dangerous than other farm equipment, but Elders had phased them out of its fleet in all but a couple of black soil plains work situations to avoid the risk of rollover accidents.
Elders has more than 2000 staff employed in roles ranging from financial services to feedlot management, merchandising and meat processing.
Since 2012 the company’s lost time injury rate has fallen from 34 days to six last year.
Eight months into the 2017-18 trading year it sits at a just two.
Killara feedlot has not reported a lost day to injury in 18 months, while the entire southern business zone has been in the clear for three years.
Our staff repeatedly rate safety as the number one issue important to their job, and the business
Coincidentally Elders financial health has made a similar dramatic improvement, anticipating a net profit around $60m for 2017-18 after recovering from almost a decade of losses and crippling debt following the global financial crisis.
“Our staff feedback repeatedly rates safety as the number one issue employees consider important to their job, and the business,” Mr Allison said.
“The first item on every meeting agenda at Elders is safety, and how we can make practical, commonsense improvements.”
About 40 per cent of Elders’ injuries tend to relate to lifting and shifting – strains and sprains often caused by moving anything from chemical drums to bags of dog food.
A further 40pc involve livestock work, including people being hit by animals and gates, or falls from horses.
Like their farmer customers, they company’s agents, agronomists and other staff often work in yards and paddocks, or spend many hours on the road, where simple tasks, or distractions, can result in injuries.
Personal story adds impact
To help reinforce the reality of those dangers, Elders regularly records interviews with staff whose accidents provide a sobering alert to fellow workers about unforeseen farm sector risks.
In one case an over-tired agronomist lost control of his vehicle and drove into an irrigation channel.
His “tell it how it is” story shared his reflections on being too focused on a busy work schedule at the expense of his own safety, and the subsequent impact the accident had on his family, including his father’s moving recollection of the crash news.
Another story sparked a rush of skin cancer checks across the business after a Queensland stock agent reported his frightening encounter with a melanoma diagnosis and subsequent life-saving surgery.
Elders managers have even been involved in a mock court trial with real lawyers highlighting the legal flaws in some of their workplace safety assumptions.
Agribusiness contact with the wider farm sector not only helps reinforce the safety message to farm workers, it provides useful grassroots feedback on about the practicality of occupational health and safety strategies in rural workplaces.
“It’s a two-way street. We learn a lot, too,” said GrainCorp’s health and safety group manager, Laurence O’Dwyer.
We don’t expect to be changing people’s ideas overnight, but if we are contributing that’s a good thing for rural families.”
“Farmers are generally very practical people and don’t like unnecessary processes, and we’re happy to take on board their feedback.”
Sensible rules help
The big grain handler and processor subsequently scrapped its hard hat requirement for all visitors to silo sites after farmers pointed out the rule made no sense outside specific areas which might have aerial hazards.
Those delivering grain to a site was generally not outside their truck or near tall structures which may pose a potential risk from falling debris.
With its grain receival sites dotted across eastern Australia, GrainCorp also has frequent contact with thousands of farmers, transport drivers and a big workforce of part-time employees at harvest, including backpackers, students on holiday and regular rural workers.
“As a major corporate stakeholder in the rural community we like to think we can have a positive influence on the way farmers and other rural workers think about risks in any workplace,” Mr O’Dwyer said.
“We don’t expect to be changing people’s ideas overnight, but if we are contributing that’s a good thing for rural families.”
“We work hard to keep hazards away from areas where people work or walk, and to build a culture where people look out for their mates and are simply aware of what’s happening around them.”
To help reinforce the company’s messages, updated annually during local pre-harvest silo information meetings with farmers, GrainCorp also runs programs specifically for women.
Mr O’Dwyer said women were invariably as much a part of farming partnerships as men and influential in helping his company educate and emphasise safety priorities and strategies to customers, and its significant male workforce.
GrainCorp also contributes frequently to safety forums on industry issues ranging from fumigation to working at heights.
The company has about 2500 staff globally across its grain, oilseed processing and malt divisions.
Its injury incident rate has dropped 70pc in the past five years to three per million hours worked.
A renewed focus is now centred on thinking ahead to prevent potential critical risk situations – possible seriously harmful situations beyond the more mundane “slip, trip, fall” incidents.
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