Have you ever wondered why mining companies and building sites seem to be paranoid about safety? The paranoia is on display with lots of fluorescent clothing, safety signs everywhere, stickers and tickets on every bit of machinery, sign in sign out and endless safety and induction briefings.
It all exists because of one single reason, the unions. The unions over the decades have pushed companies hard on safety and the government has fully backed them. The result has been a dramatic improvement in safety culture and a steady decline in accidents and deaths on mine and construction sites. This year alone across Australia there has been 144 workplace deaths with 30 of those coming out of agriculture, forestry and fishing compared to just 9 from mining and petroleum from roughly the same workforce numbers.
The farm deaths come from the usual high risk factors including vehicles, quad bikes, tractors, animals, guns and drownings. The injuries come from slipping, lifting, falling and being hit by livestock or machinery. Farms with older equipment and older farmers were proved more at risk compared to farms with the latest equipment and younger operators, the stats and facts make for solemn reading.
We understand that farms are inherently more dangerous than mines because of the wide range of risks that farmers and their staff face each day. Factors such as a greater number of older workers, less skilled workers, high use of casual labour and limited profitability impacting the ability of farm businesses to buy the latest and safest machinery.
But none of that matters to the state government. Worksafe inspectors do not care if you have not had the time to undertake a safety training program or have been unable to book an electrician to check and upgrade the wiring on the shearing shed. They do not care if you had a machinery break down and needed to test the drive belts without replacing the safety guards on the header. If something goes wrong and you are liable, the full force of the law is heading your way.
The law I speak of is not the old law of a warning or a fine of $50,000 is someone dies. It is a fine that will send you bankrupt and has the capacity to send you to jail. At the end of November, the State Government started the final phase of their massive overhaul of the state’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws with the introduction of a major Bill into Parliament.
The new legislation includes industrial manslaughter provisions carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment for an individual and a fine of $10 million for a corporate entity. Even worse the new laws will make it illegal for insurance companies to indemnify entities against monetary penalties imposed under workplace health and safety laws.
Just to ensure the Industrial Relation lawyers can potential have a field day, the WHS Bill defines health as both ‘physical and psychological health’, aiming to further emphasise the importance of considering psychological health in the design and management of work. Then let’s not forget the risks associated with the push to litigate on the health impacts of agricultural chemicals including glyphosate now pose to farm businesses.
The public comment period for the accompanying regulations to the Bill has closed and the government has begun work on the final package to support this Bill. Despite the large amount of consultation over the last two years, there is no sign that the government is in any mood to compromise on the penalties it will impose. The CFMEU and other unions are driving the government hard with their goal to lock up corporate bigwigs to make their point of there is nowhere to hide when something goes tragically wrong in the workplace.
The changes that the state government has introduced while aimed at the top of the Terrace for executives overseeing big construction and mining companies, will go all the way down the corporate chain to the managing director of the small family farm. The risks are real to farm businesses and it is imperative that the Farm Safety Plan is up the on the office wall right alongside the Drought Risk Plan, the Machinery Movement Plan and the Family Divorce Plan in readiness for the annual farm planning session with the farm consultant.
Those who are unprepared and have not put a plan in place will find, that long after the shock of finding the accident victim under the tractor and the ambulance has left the farm with a corpse in the back, the legal and personal drama will unfold over many years and has the ability to potentially end generations of hard work and ultimately leaving the farm and the family with nothing.
The drama will commence on the same day of the accident, with both the Police and Worksafe arriving to begin their investigations and will roll on month after month matched only by the growing pile of legal bills. The real shock will not just be the lawyer’s warnings of the potential fines but the length of the jail sentence that goes with it. They start at a $50,000 fine for a level 1 offence for a sole trader and jump to a $450,000 fine for a company. For a level 4 offence it is a $550,000 fine plus 5 years jail and for a company director it rises to a $2,700,000 fine. If they are able to prove a charge of industrial manslaughter its 20 years jail time and a $10m fine. You will also need to say goodbye to the farm as there will be no insurance dollars to cover the fines while you sit in jail.
This is the reason why lawyers are saying the McGowan government is well on the way to passing Australia’s toughest work safety laws. The penalties are severe, and the unions will do everything they can to make sure they are passed. With the backing of the Greens the government only needs one more vote to get it through the Legislative Council next year, and when it does the world of risk when it comes to farm safety will go through the roof.
We have already seen how far the courts will go in other states with the $12m fine in 2016 on a Tasmanian farmer over a quad bike accident for not providing any training and neglecting to enforce the wearing of helmet. If that was not a wakeup call to Western Australian farmers, then these new laws surely will be. Every farm business needs to ensure that it is taking all reasonable and practical steps to manage the hazards people and workers are exposed to by reviewing the physical and mental health risks.
To show how serious the government is, they have added $12.9 million in further safety initiatives to the WorkSafe budget with the employment of an additional 21 inspectors, bringing the total number of inspectors employed to conduct a greater number of safety inspections and enforce workplace safety to 120.
These inspectors will be targeting farms via increased inspections, the issuing of on the spot improvement notices, prohibition notices, prosecution actions, verbal directions or any combination of the above. It is like the police going on a Christmas blitz, they will be looking for those who are not doing the right thing. If you do not have a farm safety check list and have not undertaken a mock audit, then the clock is ticking, and the risks are rising. We implore to protect yourself, your family and your farm and do it before the new laws are in place.
FarmSafe WA offer a safety audit www.farmsafe.org.au for $1320. There are others out there, but often they are offering a lot less for a lot more money. FarmSafe WA is a farmer run non for profit which offers great value for money, for far less than a roo-bar for the farm ute. There is no excuse for all 4000 farms in WA to not have a current safety system in place.
The reality of farming today is that farm safety is critical and deserves a solid day each year updating your paperwork and signage to ensure you are compliant. In addition, induction and training for staff and contractors is required, plus time spent making plant and equipment safe. It is not cheap, but it is cheaper than fighting the court case and paying the fines, and it is far better than going to jail. There are two organisations all farmers should be aware of FarmSafe Australia and SafeFarmWA, they have the material you need to keep your farm safe.