Friday, December 8, 2023

People-first in health and safety

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Rachel and Kenneth Short say getting on top of your health and safety policies doesn’t have to be about piles of paperwork and shouldn’t be about simply ticking the compliance boxes. They told Cheyenne Stein how they strive to run simple yet effective systems that make health and safety on their farm a breeze.
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Communication, education and awareness are the key components to the systems Rachel and Kenneth Short have in place to ensure everyone on their Taranaki farm gets home safe at night. The couple’s approach to people management and health and safety earned them a merit award at the 2014 New Zealand Dairy Business of the Year for Best People Management and they continue to strive to keep their systems simple yet effective.

Rachel, a part-time consultant with OnFarmSafety New Zealand, says since starting her job they have been able to develop effective systems for managing health and safety on their farm.

“When I was approached about the opportunity with OnFarmSafety I was sort of like, I don’t even know if we’re doing health and safety right. But that was two years ago when people weren’t really sure what health and safety was all about, and that’s changed a lot with increased awareness.”

The biggest challenge at the moment is the low payout.

“A few years ago when the payout was up, people were happy to sign on with us and buy personal protective equipment and everything. At the moment with the payout where it is, it’s a bit trickier. People are counting their pennies.”

Educating farmers about health and safety is a key part of Rachel’s role and she says a lot of it is getting people to realise health and safety doesn’t equal a mountain of paperwork and compliance doesn’t mean you’re fulfilling your duties of keeping people safe.

“It’s actually not a heap of paperwork. Having 10 folders lying on a shelf somewhere isn’t what’s going to keep people alive and safe. It’s all about having good systems in place and putting those systems into practice.”

Sitting down and saying to yourself “who’s involved in the business, who’s responsible for what” and getting the whole team on board is a key starting point, Rachel says.

“Health and safety isn’t just the responsibility of one person in the business – it’s everybody’s responsibility.” 

Working for OnFarmSafety has given Rachel more insight in the world of health and safety than she had before, but the couple say that they have always been focused on working towards having good systems in place.

“When we first started I spent a lot of time figuring out what I was supposed to be doing in terms of health and safety and I didn’t even know who was out there to ask questions to or get advice about things. We really didn’t want everything to be all paperwork, so we wanted to focus on having some good simple systems in place to get what’s on paper into practice.”

“When you marry someone that broke one arm five times and the other one six times while growing up and is generally just a bit accident prone, you want to make sure you’ve got some pretty robust systems in place,” Rachel says.

Kenneth came out of the building industry so had a high level of knowledge of health and safety before the couple went farming together. Rachel has completed a National Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety as part of her job and has completed FarmSafe and PrimaryITO courses. The couple are keen to keep learning and building their knowledge, but they say it’s not all about going to courses.

“It’s also learning from other farmers and even learning from the various people that you deal with on a daily basis. It’s getting workers to go and watch the vet so they can learn safe ways to deal with lame or down cows and getting the guy who services the motorbikes to run you through what a good weekly check on the bike looks likes. All of that feeds into safety on farm.” 

The couple used resources like the DairyNZ compliance tool kit and the Quick Start to Recruitment guide when they took on their 2IC Taylor Field and continue to use tools from OnFarmSafety.

The couple say they are lucky with Taylor in that he has really taken ownership of health and safety on the farm. The couple have regular meetings with him, and health and safety is a consistent theme.

“We have meetings with Taylor every week and with our sharemilkers once a month. Health and safety is sort of embedded in all aspects of the farm, so it’s talked about a lot.”

Hazard and warning signs are a common sight on the Short farm, a sign-in box is clearly visible for visitors, and fire extinguishers are dotted around the place.

“The sign-in box has a farm hazard map and all the contact numbers for us in there. One of the big things we do have is good emergency procedures. People think health and safety is just about helmets on bikes, but emergency readiness is also a big part of it, so everyone on the farm knows what to do in those types of events.”

Another feature of their health and safety systems is a farm pack that is sent to all the contractors used on the property. The pack comes complete with a cover letter, all their contact information, and farm hazard maps with access gates noted.

“We’ve been doing this since not long after I started working for OnFarmSafety. We think it’s really important to provide, but it’s also important to remember that it’s not just about sending out the pack and that being that,” Rachel says.

“It could easily be used as a tool to tick the boxes, but we don’t just send the pack out,” Kenneth says. “I always meet contractors when they come on to the farm and keep an eye out when they’re here. I will have a chat with them about the job, make sure they are aware of hazards and make sure we are all on the same page.”

The biggest component of the Shorts’ health and safety system is communication.

“You can easily get into situations where you have a contractor coming to the farm, who has been given third-hand information to drive down the road to find an open gate with a paddock of silage to be cut, and starts mowing it only to have the sharemilker come out in a rage because the farm owner didn’t tell him what was going on. We would never send anybody on to our other farm without letting our sharemilkers know, or on to this farm without letting Taylor know.”

Rachel confesses to being a massive fan of whiteboards, with a large one set up in the dairy, complete with farm map and various areas to note what’s going on out on the farm, including hazards.

“Again, it doesn’t just end at writing something down, you need to be able to tell people and do something about it as well. You can’t just write it down and hope that someone walks past and reads the board before they go out to a paddock that could be dangerous because someone dug a hole for a burst pipe or something.”

Time and money savings have been a big benefit for Rachel and Kenneth, and they say people don’t realise setting up your systems well can actually save you in the long run.

“If you have good simple systems in place your staff are more likely to want to stay, so you’re not dealing with staff turnover and recruitment costs, not spending money on relief milkers if someone is down with an injury. In this payout, it takes away the stress knowing we have the right systems in place and that everyone will go home safe at night,” Rachel says.

The couple say recent health and safety legislation changes are a step ahead of what they were, but people should want to send their staff home safe. They should be actively doing things to keep everyone on the farm safe, and not need a piece of legislation to tell them to.

“With dairy farming being classed as low-risk I guess there’s the worry that people will think they don’t have to worry so much about it, but regardless of what classification dairy farming is, you still have to comply with the legislation. It’s all the same.”

Along with good systems, the practical component of making sure facilities are fit for purpose is important for Rachel and Kenneth.

“When we went into partnership on our other farm, it was pretty well set up with concrete races and was pretty flat, but the cow shed was 47 years old so we were dealing with old hot water cylinders, open top vat, unguarded belts so we communicated a lot with our sharemilkers around that and worked quickly to get everything up to scratch for them.”

The couple say it all boils down to getting people out of the mindset that health and safety is mile-high stacks of paperwork and a series of boxes to be ticked, it’s about putting things into practise, keeping everything people friendly and putting people first.

The OnFarmSafety audit process

Stage 1:

Meet onfarm to do a comprehensive written audit. It takes 2-3 hours, including an initial discussion about the clients’ understanding of health and safety legislation responsibilities and requirements for their business, checking any health and safety systems, documents or procedures that might be in place for the business in relation to hazard management, accident-incidents, emergency plans, machinery and contractors-visitors, and other topics.

The farm walk follows, taking photos for the written report, to develop a master hazard list and sight written procedures and signage onfarm.

Stage 2:

Consultant writes up the report from the day, noting requirements, people responsible and a compliance rating, as well as audit actions and summary along with a farm-specific master hazard list. This report is sent to the client.

Stage 3:

Reporting audit back to client to explain requirements and recommendations.

Where else to go for help:

OnFarmSafetyNZ –

WorksafeNZ –

DairyNZ –


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