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Farmer and rural journalist Julie Paton writes a cautionary tale about a freak accident which brought close to home the high toll on life farming takes.

Farming is this country's deadliest industry. The statistics don't lie — 124 farming-related deaths in the past six years.

The potential to injure or maim yourself on a farm is extensive, and we spend a good portion of time maintaining equipment and discussing safety with staff. Reading through our accident register shows how wide, varied and unexpected accidents and near misses are.

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Quad bikes are workhorses on nearly every farm but are involved in 25 per cent of farm fatalities.

Robert with Missy and one of his other dogs, Little One. Photo / Bruce Paton
Robert with Missy and one of his other dogs, Little One. Photo / Bruce Paton

But even after 25 years of farming, we weren't prepared for a call from our son Jack one night last month saying our Kaiwaka manager Rob was missing on the farm.

Bruce and I were driving north, going in and out of reception while Rob's wife, Jacqui, frantically tried to call us. Rob was last seen on his quad bike, and said he'd be home in time to meet friends arriving from Christchurch.

Now it was nearly dark, and he still wasn't home. Neither were his three dogs. Jacqui couldn't find him anywhere; his phone was going straight to answer phone.

Cold dread washed over me. Bruce told Jacqui to ring their neighbours and the police.

We turned, and I drove south as fast as safely possible while Bruce rang whoever he could think of to search the farm. I never want to repeat that drive, knowing we were more than an hour away and every minute counted, and not knowing where or how Rob was.

Baz, Bruce's dad, along with a couple of our other staff were already on their way to Kaiwaka to help search. Codi, from our farm, had loaded our quad on to Bruce's ute by the time we reached home.

Bruce left, and Jack I waited for news, unable to concentrate on anything else. Fifteen minutes later my phone rang. I could see it was Bruce and I steeled myself to answer.

Farm worker dies after quad bike rolled over on a Welcome Bay farm. BTC 06Mar14 - FARM TRAGEDY: WorkSafe NZ and farm staff inspect the scene of a fatal quad bike accident in rural Welcome Bay.
Farm worker dies after quad bike rolled over on a Welcome Bay farm. BTC 06Mar14 - FARM TRAGEDY: WorkSafe NZ and farm staff inspect the scene of a fatal quad bike accident in rural Welcome Bay.

"They've found him, and he's conscious," Bruce said quickly, putting me out of my misery.

"But I don't know how he is, I'll ring you back when I know more."

His next call brought huge relief. For someone who had been trapped face down in mud for four hours, Rob was in remarkably good shape. He was mildly hypothermic, had a broken rib, collapsed lung, slight head injury and bruising.

After he had a hot shower, an ambulance whisked him to hospital, where he stayed for the next four days.

We visited him the next morning in hospital and it was good to hear him talking and laughing, although obviously still suffering from the mental and physical toll of the previous afternoon.

HIT A BUMP

How did it happen? How does anything like this happen – a moment's inattention, a distraction. Rob is a careful, intelligent person with plenty of farming and quad-driving experience.

The quad hit a bump and reared up on him. He said it happened in slow motion, the bike twisting up and over him.

Realising what was happening, he tried to jump clear but landed face down, the quad thumping down on him. Luckily the quad seat was rested on the small of his back.

One arm was trapped but with 10 minutes of wriggling, he worked it back to his chest and braced himself on two arms to lift his chest off the ground to breathe.

He could breathe well for the first hour, he said, but then the pressure began to affect him, and he had to concentrate on not passing out or throwing up because either of those options meant he would probably die.

Two of his dogs sat a few metres away, but heading dog Missy, stayed near him, occasionally licking his face.

I don't know what went through his head during those hours. His survival is a testament to his physical and mental strength.

WOULD HE SURVIVE

He wondered, many times, when he would be found and if he could last. The quad lights were on and he hoped someone would see them.
But eventually the battery ran flat, the lights dimmed along with the daylight. He grew colder.

Finally, he heard a quad bike driving nearby and thought with relief he was rescued. But the bike continued past, the driver not seeing the upturned bike or dogs.

Half an hour later, another bike approached. This time it was a neighbour, Wade and his mate Sam.

Driving along a ridge with Sam shining a torch, they caught a flash of movement, too fast for stock. Coming closer, they caught the reflection of eyes - two dogs sitting at the top of the slope.

There's no telling what they thought when they found Missy standing guard beside the upside-down quad with legs emerging from it. But they found him and saved his life.

Rob is home now, and after a further week was allowed out on the farm again. His family have all visited to check that he is indeed okay, and to say all those things often left unsaid.

A month on, Rob reflects on his accident: "The day it happened was a busy day and I had other things happening with friends arriving from Christchurch. I had been clearing dry cows out of a paddock that had numerous hiding places and was on my third go at making sure I had cleared the paddock.

"It was a moment of distraction and it happened so fast. I was very lucky, it could have been fatal. I have ridden through the same paddock a number of times since and questioned myself as to how I got it wrong.

"It has made me more aware, obviously, as I had a long time to think about it and what the outcome may have been and the people in my life I had let down.

''The support received from my wife Jacqui and the Paton family along with our neighbours, especially Wade and Sam, was very humbling and appreciated."