Friday, December 1, 2023

Farm deaths demand urgent attention, expert says

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Far too many people – many of them boys – are dying on our farms, says injury prevention researcher.
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Work contributes to about a quarter of all fatal injuries in New Zealand and the primary sector is among the worst offenders, according to University of Otago-led research.

The new research set out to determine the societal burden of fatal work-related incidents in the country by including bystanders and commuters.

Lead author Dr Rebbecca Lilley, of Otago’s Injury Prevention Research Unit, said work poses increased risk of injury not only for workers but also for the public, yet the broader impact of work-related injuries has never been quantified. 

“We have long known official work fatality data dramatically undercount the true burden of work to fatal injury in New Zealand,” Lilley said.

“This study conservatively estimates that we don’t even count half the fatal injuries that occur due to work.” 

Lilley said the aim of the study was to highlight where NZ has historically poorly performed in workplace safety and help provide answers.

“When our official data understate the scale of the issue society suffers.

“If we are to achieve a substantive reduction in work-related fatal injury it is time to recognise and count the broader societal burden of work fatalities and respond to them adequately.”

In total, 7707 coronial records from 2005 to 2014 were reviewed, of which 1884 (24%) were identified as work-related. Of those 1884, almost half occurred among non-working bystanders and commuters. Of the fatal injuries for that time, those due to machinery (97%) and due to being struck by another object (69%) were work-related.

Lilley said the primary production sector, which includes agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the construction industry were the only sectors to have an increase in fatal injuries during the study period.

In that time, 310 people died in the primary sector, while 76 children aged under 15 also died in rural accidents.

“These increases in risk of fatal injury makes this group a priority for urgent attention and further examination as to why primary production sectors have not experienced the same health and safety benefits as other workers in other sectors,” Lilley said.

 “We know that in agriculture there are deaths that don’t get counted. For example a lot of crop-dusting deaths don’t get counted in agriculture, they are counted under civil aviation. But the activities happening are happening on farm, and it’s an agricultural activity.”

Dr Rebbecca Lilley said when data understates the frequency of workplace deaths, society suffers.

Workers who may not be getting paid – such as family members – don’t get counted in official statistics, and neither do children killed on farms.

While the study looked at data up until in 2014, Lilley does not believe things have changed in the past decade.

“If you look at the fatality data  … agriculture is still the No 1 contributor to fatalities. We may see some decline [in recent years] but I don’t think its going to be the big paradigm shift that we need.”

Lilley said agriculture’s performance, when compared to other sectors, has been poor during 30 years of data collection by the unit. The industry has been slow to achieve reductions in fatalities. There appears to be a group resistant to change and not prepared to engage with health and safety legislation.

“Basically it’s the same sorts of incidents happening over and over again. We are not shifting the dial when it comes to quad bikes and tractor rollovers.

“People are getting killed by moving objects, vehicles predominantly.”

Lilley said quad bikes are particularly dangerous and often used in a way they weren’t designed for. Farmers need to move from quad bikes and into more secure side-by-side vehicles, she said.

Of the children who died, most were boys, which, Lilley believes, shows some are being exposed to farming tasks before they are ready.

“We know how to protect our females on farms. We don’t let them go out and do the tasks they aren’t developmentally able to do.

“Yet, we have the kind of attitude that our boys will learn on the job early and get exposed to these risks.

“In some cases their brains are not developed to make the right decisions or they’re not physically developed enough to be using a piece of equipment that’s designed for an adult.”

Other “equally hazardous” sectors have made inroads into workplace safety, which shows change is possible, she said. 

Forestry improved significantly after political and public scrutiny of the industry led to an independent safety review.

“We don’t see the same political activity or public outcry about farming fatalities. Yet in farming we kill way more people than we do in the forest.”

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