Editorial: Farm injuries show it's time for rethink

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In the 12 months to the end of last June, 20 people died in the agriculture sector as a result of workplace accidents. Photo / Mark MItchell
In the 12 months to the end of last June, 20 people died in the agriculture sector as a result of workplace accidents. Photo / Mark MItchell

On Wednesday afternoon, a contractor had his hand crushed on a farm near Ashburton. He needed surgery after it got caught in a harvesting machine. The same day, a Nelson teenager was run over by a farm trailer and flown to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

In the 12 months to the end of last June, 20 people died in the agriculture sector as a result of workplace accidents. The toll was more than double the number killed in forestry, mining and construction combined, and was the same the previous two years. As many as one in five agriculture workers make ACC claims, with the cost running to millions.

By its nature, farm work is dangerous. But the distressing death and injury figures raise questions whether the approach to safety on farms is the right one. Last year, when health and safety legislation was overhauled, agriculture - previously considered a high risk sector - became a low risk industry. At the time the Minister, Michael Woodhouse, said the reclassification did not mean it was a safe area to work and the industry needed to lift its game.

Worksafe New Zealand maintains the way to reduce the death and injury toll on farms is with a softly, softly approach. While it has taken forestry companies to court, it prefers to work alongside the farming sector to bring change.

By classifying farms as low risk, the law spares farmers the requirement to have a health and safety officer. But the law does not excuse farmers from keeping an accident register, listing hazardous substances on their property and identifying farm risks.

Two years ago the Council of Trade Unions launched successful court action against forestry firms after labour inspectors declined to prosecute. Clearly too many New Zealanders are getting hurt or killed on farms. Worksafe will need to show its approach to farm safety is reducing workplace casualties or farmers, like foresters, could find themselves being held to account in the courts.

- NZ Herald

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