A new national report highlights the overlap in health and safety risks across 12 agricultural and fisheries sectors, which result in fatality, injury and illness.
The report, Identifying and prioritising WHS overlaps across the Agriculture and Fisheries Sectors, was released in October by the Rural Safety and Health Alliance (RSHA).
The RSHA is a partnership led by AgriFutures Australia in collaboration with GRDC and seven other Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). These include the:
- Fisheries Research and Development Corporation,
- Australian Eggs,
- Australian Pork Limited,
- Australian Wool Innovation,
- Cotton Research and Development Corporation,
- Dairy Australia,
- Meat & Livestock Australia.
RSHA executive officer Andrew Barrett says the report provides a snapshot of the commonality in work, health and safety (WHS) hazards spanning:
- sheep and wool,
- chicken meat,
- export fodder,
- thoroughbred horses,
- wild-catch fisheries.
Mr Barrett says the report is distinctive not only because it delivers a multi-sector overview of risk, but also because it draws on both quantitative data and qualitative findings. Previous WHS profiling has mostly relied on quantitative data, he says.
The qualitative component of the report, covering mental health and wellbeing, was based on interviews with industry operators representing the range of different sectors examined. Its quantitative component was gleaned from three main sources. These are the National Coronial Information System, the National Data Set for Compensation-Based Statistics (workers’ compensation data) and the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (zoonotic disease transmitted from animals to people).
Mr Barrett say the report aims to inform the RSHA’s cross-sector investment in research, development and extension projects to reduce the incidence of death and serious injury. The economic burden of death, injury and ill-health in agriculture and fisheries is conservatively estimated at $840 million a year, he says.
Highlighting this opportunity for co-investment between the RSHA’s RDC funding partners, the report found nearly half the hazard hotspots identified (16 of 34) were common to all the sectors examined.
For example, data over the five-year period from 2014–19 showed there were:
- nine sectors in which 26 tractor fatalities occurred;
- nine sectors in which 34 quad bike fatalities occurred;
- eight sectors in which 19 mobile plant equipment and machinery (excluding tractors and quad bikes) fatalities occurred;
- eight sectors in which 26 vehicle (ute, car, truck and side-by-side vehicle) fatalities occurred;
- three sectors in which 18 water-related fatalities occurred (14 fatalities were at sea); and
- four sectors in which six electrical-related fatalities occurred.
GRDC industry and government relations manager Maxie Hanft says the RSHA was formed in 2018 to inform best practice WHS guidelines and identify which risks should be targeted on farms.
"GRDC together with eight other RDCs identified a need to work together on a cross-sectoral research, development and extension strategy for WHS," says Ms Hanft.
"While each sector has specific health and safety challenges, the broader challenges need to be addressed by more than one RDC – they require a strategic approach from the entire agricultural sector.
"Investing in WHS research and development together with other RDCs provides GRDC with the greatest possible chance of success in identifying key WHS pain points and in targeting research.
"RSHA leverages co-investment from across the agricultural sector."
Mr Barrett says the RSHA report findings can also inform the development of on-farm risk mitigation strategies for grain growers, particularly those with mixed-farming operations.
It provides a clear picture of health and safety risks across sectors that can help growers identify hotspots relating to a number of enterprises, such as cropping, beef and sheep, in one mixed-farm business.
“The information can be used to prioritise risk management in those hotspot areas, such as risks associated with high fatalities, to maximise the impact of on-farm safety measures," Mr Barrett says.
For instance, an important finding was that quad bikes, tractors, mobile plant machinery and equipment, utes and motorbikes caused fatalities across several agricultural sectors and accounted for nearly half of all fatal incidents.
“A small number of agents are responsible for a disproportionate burden of the deaths, providing a key focus for prevention.”
The report is also expected to inform sector-specific investment, targeting WHS for all the major RDCs.
Mr Barrett says the report found that, overall, many of the same health and safety risks are persisting in the grains industry as in other agricultural and fisheries sectors.
For example, the fatality rate on farms across Australia has remained “stubbornly steadfast” since 2005. And fatalities in the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors account for about 20 per cent of work-related fatalities nationally, even though these sectors employ just 2.6 per cent of workers in Australia, he says.
“There are a few areas of risk in grains operations that continue to cause the greatest amount of harm in terms of fatality and injury every year.”
The report shows eight main activities were linked to fatalities in grains operations. These were loading and unloading grain, harvesting, spraying, seeding, applying fertiliser, machinery maintenance, building maintenance and aerial baiting.
“This reinforces that it is the routine activities and equipment that continue to present the greatest risk of injury to grain growers across the country,” he says.
It found the main hazards facing grain growers, based on ratings for severity, frequency and risk are:
- tractor incidents, with high risk of death or serious injury resulting from run-overs, roll-overs, falls, entanglement in attachments and hydraulic failures;
- ute, car, truck and side-by-side vehicle incidents, with high risk of death or serious injury resulting from crashes, run-overs, roll-overs and falls;
- quad bike incidents, with high risk of death or serious injury resulting from crashes, roll-overs and falls; and
- fuel and fertiliser (urea) incidents, with high risk of death or serious injury resulting from fire, explosion or leakage.
Grains industry snapshot
- There are, on average, three deaths and 140 injuries per year on grain farms and a further four deaths and 450 injuries on mixed livestock-grain farms annually.
- In the grains industry, an estimated 25 per cent of these injuries occur loading or unloading grain and 19 per cent happen during harvest.
- In addition to the non-quantifiable grief and loss, the estimated cost of loss of life, injury and illness to the grains industry and the mixed livestock-grains industry is $30 million per year.
Mr Barrett says the multi-sector findings have culminated in four key cross-sectoral industry recommendations:
- initiate a cross-sector implementation program addressing five major risks: fatalities from mobile plant equipment and machinery, vehicles and electrical hazards, as well as serious injury from manual handling, slips, trips and falls;
- maintain a watching brief on mental health and wellbeing initiatives and seek suitable partnership arrangements where feasible;
- establish an expert panel to provide advice on future WHS technology developments; and
- initiate a work program to assess and reduce the negative impacts of fatigue on WHS in the agricultural and fisheries sectors.
Of these recommendations, he says mental health and wellbeing is an important priority for the RSHA’s RDC funding partners.
However, he says, the report findings suggest RSHA investment alone “won’t move the dial”.
“Mental health and wellbeing is a complex area that requires a multilateral approach coordinated with health system investment.”
On the other hand, the report indicates that “upstream investment” which better integrates health and safety into technology design and development could deliver significant WHS outcomes for multi-sector industries, and reduce the day-to-day risk burden on producers, he says. For instance, autonomous tractor technology could reduce the risk of roll-over, run-over and power take-off shaft injuries.