Is it time to recast WHS for the agriculture sector?

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Thursday, 1 July, 2021 - 13:00
Industry news
National News

There are a number of important changes which are affecting current approaches to farming community work health and safety, and guidelines from other sectors of the economy might need to be recast for the agriculture sector, according to the UTS-Institute for Sustainable Futures.

There are six common uses of land, including recreation, transport (roads, airports, train stations), agriculture (production of food and fibre), residential (sites for permanent or temporary human dwellings and settlements), commercial (businesses, warehouses, shops and any other infrastructure related to commerce) and conservation (such as natural resource protection, Indigenous or western cultural heritage conservation).

“Although traditionally, formal land-use planning has tended to keep these uses separate, the potential uses of agricultural land encompass activities and enterprises drawn from these six categories leaving enormous scope for adaptation,” said Associate Professor Brent Jacobs, research director for the UTS-Institute for Sustainable Futures.

“In many areas, pressure from development or population growth has led to the idea that land be should be multi-functional, that is, land should provide benefits from more than one type of use.

“For example, in areas surrounding major cities, we often see biodiversity conservation becoming part of agricultural land use. In cities, we are increasingly seeing food production proposed as part of the built environment (residential or commercial land use).”

These changes in land use alter the WHS profile of farmers and food producers because the range of activities they need to consider in managing their land may be much broader, said Jacobs, who was speaking ahead of SAFEfest for 2021: Health & Safety in a Changing World, which will be held online and in-person from 24-26 August 2021.

The options for farmers to respond to drivers of change while remaining on the land encompass persistence (short-term changes to get through the crisis), incremental adjustments to farming systems that become durable changes over time or transformational changes that lead them to pursue non-agricultural livelihoods.

Jacobs said the stronger the drivers the more likely farmers will look for transformational changes to sustain their families and businesses.

“As farmers move across this spectrum of change, WHS risks move from known risks entailed in conventional farming practices to emergent risks from activities not widely practised in the agriculture sector,” he said.

“For example, some livestock farmers have integrated micro-abattoirs into their businesses to better control their supply chains, which could expose farm families to a range of risks normally experienced by abattoir workers.

“Moving to organic vegetable production systems often sees workers experiencing more repetitive strain injuries from hand weeding in lieu of use of chemical control.”

Increasing use of robotics and automation on farms has the potential to change WHS risks to farming communities in ways which haven’t yet been considered, he added.

“There’s no suggestion that these changes to agriculture are inherently bad and farming communities must be allowed to adapt to survive,” said Jacobs.

“However, in light of the already high rate of WHS incidents among farming communities, and their distinct physical and cultural environment, the way they manage WHS risks becomes an important issue in the development of sustainable rural livelihoods.”

What it does mean is that WHS guidelines from other sectors of the economy might need to be recast for the agriculture sector, Jacobs explained.
“So far, the link between changes in farming systems, business models and WHS risks has been the subject of only limited research interest and changes in risk profiles due to adoption of transformational responses (such as novel uses of agricultural lands) have not been explored,” he said.


Jacobs will be speaking at SAFEfest for 2021: Health & Safety in a Changing World. The Victorian, New South Wales, Tasmania and ACT branches of the AIHS will convene a hybrid event from 24-26 August 2021 with virtual sessions as well as face-to-face sessions in NSW, ACT, VIC and TAS. For more information email or visit the event website.