On Farm Safety

April 2022

Some initiatives aimed at reducing harm on the farm.

Karen Williams is national vice-president of Federated Farmers, with farm safety as one of her portfolios. She outlines various safety issues concerning her and the organisation, and some of the initiatives aimed at “reducing harm on the farm”. 


Karen is co-owner of an arable farm in the Wairarapa. A graduate in regional and resource planning, she took part in the 2015 Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator programme.  In 2016, pea growing was banned in the Wairarapa when pea weevils were found in seed crops, and Karen was appointed to MPI's governance group as the grower representative.


Late in 2019 we interviewed Karen on the pea weevil situation, and she now reports (in late 2021) that MPI is about to officially close their response. “Even though we had eliminated the weevil by February 2020, MPI kept some surveillance going for one more season in what was the hotspot just to be absolutely sure that area had remained clear. So, from a response that started in 2016, it will finally close this year. We started growing peas again last year, and there are now some seed companies new to the region offering pea growing contracts” she says.  All in all, it was a very successful response, but certainly not something any of us want to repeat.


Subsequently she became the Arable Industry Chairperson for the Wairarapa, and in 2018 was appointed to Federated Farmers’ Board as national arable industry group chairperson. Today she is National Vice President and her interests have become much broader. One of her policy responsibilities is Workplace Health and Safety.


Karen says that there is a broad range of health and safety issues of concern to FFNZ. “One main issue is the number of people who die or are seriously injured, so reducing those is very important, but there are also significant numbers of people who get lesser injuries every day on farms. It's miserable for them and for their employer because it means downtime when you just don't have that person available in what is already a stressed work environment – things like a sprained knee, twisted ankle, or strained back.”


FFNZ has a policy adviser working with Karen on regulatory issues related to health and safety. “We are often faced with ensuring that what's coming out of government is practical and achievable because the government, like ourselves, is frustrated with the amount of harm on the farm and they will often seek to reduce that through regulations.  And we know that regulation is often not the most effective or not the only means to lead behaviour change” she says.


“An example is roll-over protection (ROPs) on quad bikes to prevent crush injuries, which the government would like to bring in by legislation.  The bike manufacturers do not support the mandatory fitting of ROPs as they believe they may detract from their safe use and have a stronger focus on rider training to reduce risk.  


“Unfortunately, because New Zealand is such a small player in the market, manufacturers have said they will leave New Zealand rather than be required to fit ROPs.  FFNZ doesn’t want that to happen as we believe that would result in farmers and growers using less appropriate vehicles and could result in more accidents.  We are discussing these issues at present.  In Australia a similar thing has happened and many of the major bike suppliers have left the market, but interestingly new players have come in to supply quads with ROPs devices.”


FFNZ is working to find ways of preventing vehicle accidents, injuries, and fatalities but Karen says that one of the difficulties is getting complete statistics to shape up the size and frequency of the problem. ACC statistics show up if someone has accessed medical treatment through an ACC provider, while WorkSafe data exists for work related investigations where there has been serious harm or a fatality. For example, in 2020 data show there were nearly 23,000 farm-related injury claims accepted by ACC (averaging 62 per day), and WorkSafe data show there were 20 workplace fatalities in the ag sector, and 2364 injuries resulting in a week away from work.  Additional data can be uncovered by talking to our insurance companies.


“We find that people will often claim for damage on their bike or tractor, but they might not have seen a doctor or hospital, so from insurance companies we get some other good insights. From those data we have seen that different sorts of accidents can occur in different regions – you might see tractor accidents higher in a one region at a certain time of year whereas elsewhere quad bikes might be a problem, so there are some interesting trends that will enable us to come up with strategies. In my view we need a spectrum of approaches, and regulations are just one of the tools. It's very important that we embrace all the opportunities for change, and that is why I applied to be on the Safer Farms Board.”


Formerly the “agricultural leaders health and safety action group”, Safer Farms is a pan agri-sector voluntary group facilitating collaboration to drive down the amount of harm on the farm.


“I think everyone recognises that the statistics are still alarming despite a lot of preventive work going on. Perhaps that is because it is sporadic, ad hoc, and so may not be very effective. Lots of people are working in little pockets and are probably achieving some things but if we worked collectively, we would achieve more.”


The group has applied for funds for its "Farm without harm" action plan. It is chaired by Lindy Nelson the founder of the Agri-Women's Development Trust, and members include Justine Kidd Principal, Kitahi; Colin Glass chief executive of Dairy Holdings; Jack Raharuhi Pamu Dairy Operations Manager, Buller; Francois Barton, Exec Director, Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum.


The barriers to change are complex, says Karen, and a major one is getting farmers to value their well-being, both physical and mental. “They get really busy, they have massive debt, and they have all sorts of pressures during their day. They are struggling to get experienced staff or even just enough staff with Covid and border lockdowns and MIQ space. They are getting more and more pressure put on them, and there is a correlation between that and accidents that occur on farm. Mental health issues on farm are better recognised now but the strategies to overcome them are still very hard to implement.”


The Safer Farms board won't be implementing all the strategies for these concerns, but we will be working with our industry partners to see who can implement what and tap into appropriate funding sources. Their action plan identifies priority areas.


Karen’s membership of Safer Farms is separate to, but in tandem with, her role with the Feds. As well as vehicle accidents and other causes of physical injury there are other areas of concern:



Long working hours can be a problem, especially at peak activity periods like calving, shearing, haymaking etc. “Agricultural contractors typically work long hours for a number of farmers, trying to fit in as much as possible for farmers who want their work done yesterday,” says Karen.


“The weather plays havoc with their schedule, and you can quite often have young, inexperienced drivers going out on the farm, sometimes to remote locations or on difficult country that they are not familiar with. They may work all sorts of long hours through the night, and that represents a risk of things going wrong with costs to people and machinery. The people part is the more important, but we may not hear about that because they get away with it without being seriously injured. However, it can show up as the amount of machinery that gets damaged when they fall asleep at the wheel.”


Skin cancer

Recent statistics from Australia show that farmers there have a 60% higher death rate from melanoma and malignant skin cancers than the general population. Also, skin cancer deaths of farmers over 65 are more than double that of other Australians in that age group. Karen points out that NZ has a sizable older farming population.


“We have the potential for significant numbers of skin cancers, and many of these are preventable. Farmers need to remember that UV damage is cumulative and so they must make prevention a routine part of their daily preparation for work.  Make it easy by having a pump bottle of sunscreen by the door, a basket of hats, sunglasses handy, more sunscreen down at the sheds and in the vehicles so you can keep applying it,” she says.


“Then they should have skin checks at least annually. My husband has his skin checked six-monthly because he has just had a second melanoma removed. Deaths are preventable if we get checks done and get problem spots identified and cut out early.”


Working in remote areas

On properties with no cellphone coverage people working on their own are at risk and can be a worry for those at home. If they are due back at 5pm but aren’t home by 6pm, should a helicopter be called? They could be pinned under a quad bike or have fallen down a bank and be unable to move or contact home base. On the other hand, they may just have discovered a leaking pipe and be repairing it and they’ll be back shortly.


A novel product called “Zoleo” uses a satellite link to provide the user with two-way messaging and weather forecasts and shows GPS co-ordinates so that someone back home knows where they are. “In an emergency one of these devices clipped to the belt can get help so much quicker than someone coming looking for them at the end of the day, and if the person is merely delayed by work, letting home base know will save a lot of anguish.”


Spraying, dust inhalation, ag chemical use

Karen says that having the right information is the biggest challenge to knowing how to tackle these areas. “When you present at the hospital with a broken leg you know the cause and effect, but if you turn up at hospital when you are 60 and you've got lung problems, tracking that back to the cause is a lot more problematic.”


“When herds move along dusty farm tracks every day the farm staff following them may be breathing in lots of dust that could cause future problems. So those sorts of areas are what Safer Farms is going to try to get better information on.”


Safer Farms is currently consulting with key stakeholders, and Karen expects there to be more details announced about Safer Farms and its Strategy and Action Plan for 2022.