In working with farmers to improve OHS on the ground, the key step for them is to “put a stake in the ground and start the journey”, according to John Darcy, senior farm safety advisor for the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF).
The vast majority of farming businesses are family-owned farms with only a handful of employees, and while they may not be small in terms of revenue and turnover, Darcy said most farming businesses are micro-sized employers.
The horticulture sector is one of the largest employing sectors in the industry with heavy reliance upon overseas labour, predominantly from the Pacific Islands.
“Safety professionals are very few and far between in the agriculture sector,” said Darcy, who was speaking ahead of the 2022 Victorian Safety Symposium, which will be held on 9 August at the Mercure Ballarat Convention & Exhibition Centre.
“With 20,000 farms in Victoria alone, the likelihood that a farmer will see an inspector is relatively small and the chances that they will attend an OHS training course are even less. “The three to four hours that a consultant, typically under WorkSafe’s OHS essentials program, or a Making Our Farms Safer (MOFS) safety advisor spends at the dining table with your typical mum and dad farming family is probably as much safety advice as these small business farmers will ever receive.”
Darcy said it would be “fanciful” to think that the work that has been done over the past two years has improved the safety outcomes of the Victorian farming industry, and he noted the number of farming incidents did decrease significantly in 2021, both in Victoria and nationally.
The WorkSafe ‘It’s never you till it is campaign’ combined with the significant ‘safety culture’ focus of the VFF’s MOFS project are unquestionably having an effect on the psyche of Victorian farmers, said Darcy.
“Farmers have a strong recall of the TV advertisements and also the messages that are contained in the monthly MOFS newsletter,” he said.
“Cultural change across the industry cannot be achieved through one advertising campaign or through a year or two of targeted messaging; cultural change takes years.”
He also observed that, over the past two years, the farming industry has been hammered by COVID and the loss of overseas seasonal workers and backpacker labour.
“Many in the community would have lost sight of the procession of catastrophes that hit the industry with droughts, floods and bushfires prior to COVID, and now the livestock sector is battling the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD),” he said.
Livestock and sheep farmers might seem like they are doing well at the moment with good beef and wool prices, while grain farmers have also experienced record crops for the past two years.
“It cannot be forgotten however that for the best part of last decade farmers have been fighting for repeatedly their very survival,” said Darcy.
“During COVID farmers worked extremely hard without the additional seasonal backpacker and foreign worker labour on their farms.
“Grain farmers, with their handful of staff, worked seven-day weeks at 12-14 hours per day to get out their harvests. Some fruit growers had to let the fruit die on their trees because they simply did not have the labour to pick it.
“As farmers have had so many challenges safety has been pushed back for a long time as a business priority.
“With good farming seasons farmers are, and will, invest back into their farms, with new safer and more productive farm machinery,” he said.
Farmers are also thirsting for OHS knowledge, according to Darcy, who said this is one of the areas where the VFF MOFS project is having the greatest effect: “we are telling farmers stuff they do not know and communicating in a language that they understand,” he said.
“Farmers resonate with their industry bodies; dairy farmers look to their dairy industry group and grain farmers do the same.
“When we meet with farmers and talk them through what they need to know we also provide them with a very easy to follow action plan.”
The vast majority of farmers want to be told what they have to do in order to comply, and Darcy said that is a big part of the role that the MOFS project is facilitating, in conjunction with WorkSafe and the Department of Agriculture.
Darcy will be speaking at the 2022 Victorian Safety Symposium, which will be held on 9 August from 9am to 5pm at the Mercure Ballarat Convention & Exhibition Centre. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the event website.