Playing it safe

Eyrewell farm is in a state of transition to improve sustainability without hitting profitability, but health and safety is a key criterion, Anne Lee reports.

In Systems14 Minutes

Building a strong health and safety culture takes time and plenty of conversations, Eyrewell Dairy farm manager Zach Haderbache says.

They’re conversations that happen when you stop for a catch-up, conversations that happen in regular formalised meetings and conversations that happen with a contractor before they even drive through the farm gate.

They happen just about anywhere and they happen every day.

Eyrewell dairy farm, on the northern bank of the Waimakariri River near Oxford in Canterbury, is a Pāmu farm.

It’s peak milking 820 cows this season, down from 1000 cows last season, as it transitions to a blended dairy and dairy beef model that will ultimately see about 650 cows milked and most dairy beef reared through to 18-20 months.

The aim is to improve sustainability without negatively affecting profitability but any changes to the farm system have been assessed with health and safety as a key criterion too.

For instance bull beef had been modelled but a decision to steer the animals was made to reduce the risk of harm to team members.

Fertigation to apply nitrogen through pivot irrigation is also being considered as it can help reduce nitrogen loss but it can help reduce risks by requiring fewer truck movements onfarm.

Zach says it’s when you start having conversations with health and safety always in mind that risks become apparent that might not have previously been seen until there was a near miss or an accident occurred.

“It takes time for that shift in thinking to come but it comes when you keep talking about it.

“It’s a process – it will start with something like a safety observation – that’s something you’ve seen that could be a risk or something done well that means there’s less risk.

“Then you talk about it. That might mean talking to someone specifically or with the team at a toolbox meeting.

‘The important thing is you see something and you talk about it – about what it is, why it’s a risk, what we can do about it or why it means we’re safer – we talk about it.’

Dairy business manager Brendon Stent helps oversee several farms in the region and says as the culture changes risks are often identified before they become near misses or injuries.

“People feel comfortable reporting incidents too and they feel confident in the process,” he says.

That’s because reporting can be readily done on Farm IQ’s farm safety module so it’s not just talked about onfarm – it’s reported, analysed and further discussed at a management level in Wellington.

The reporting then informs company policy and strategies and incidents or safety observations are shared with all other farms.

The importance the company and the farm teams place on health and safety is apparent the moment you drive through the gate where you’re greeted with a bold orange sign, quite different in look to the typical workplace hazard sign.

It’s opening statement tells you plainly – Your safety is our priority.

The Play it Safe motto adorns the sign at the gate and when a team member turns their back it’s there boldly emblazoned on their high viz shirts.

Work safe, play safe, home safe – it says.

After signing in visitors watch a short video outlining the safety expectations on Pāmu farms and some of the hazards before a team member then goes through the hazards and risks a visitor could be exposed to on Eyrewell that day.

Onfarm it’s quickly apparent the 30km speed limit is strictly adhered to by everyone, vehicles are backed into carparks, prompted by a near miss when someone was reversing out in the busy yard area, high viz is worn by everyone onfarm, hoses are hung up in the farm dairy, hot water pipes are insulated to avoid burns and wide tape, often coloured orange, is used in gateways and across lanes to ensure people see it.

It’s visible at every turn and unashamedly in your face.

All staff carry walkie talkies on Eyrewell because of patchy cell phone reception, all carry personal locator beacons and all wear helmets on motorbikes and in side-by-side vehicles.

It’s a big feature in the induction process too with key competencies such as driving and riding farm vehicles checked and signed off in a comprehensive induction booklet.

New team members are buddied up with more experienced people and remain with them until the new person and the manager are confident in their ability and competency for working alone.

Zach says team members themselves now nurture the health and safety culture and expect high standards from each other.

Contractors, too, must take on the culture and the regulars know certain standards and behaviours are non-negotiable.

All contractors are sent a link to the safety introduction video to all contractors and team members go to great lengths to ensure all understand the risks they might encounter onfarm.

“Once people understand you’re doing it because you genuinely want them to go home safely, you don’t want them to be hurt, that you’re doing it for them they listen.

“If they think it’s just compliance or ticking a box they don’t take notice properly and they think of it as something that’s going to slow them down or get in the way of them doing the job.”

Zach says an important factor in successfully working safely is reducing pressure on people.

Time pressure and fatigue can create pressures, he says.

Sticking to the six-and-two roster, having enough staff and running an efficient operation where people have the right tools for the job, know what they have to do and are trained in doing it are key factors in keeping the lid on that.

Despite the obvious priority put on keeping everyone safe and well both Brendon and Zach say it’s a continuous journey.

“Yes, we’re doing a lot of things well now but are we there yet?

“No, you can never get complacent,” Brendon says.

“You have to live it every day,” Zach says.

Tragedy brings culture home

This time four years ago Pāmu was just coming out of a tough year.

Three deaths on farms around the country in 2015 sent a huge shockwave through the company.

Mark Ogilvie joined the company the following year as head of health, wellbeing and safety and says the tragic events had brought the stark realisation that it’s the people on the ground who have to live the culture and that trying to drive it from a central head office with written policies and procedures isn’t going to be enough.

“We’ve spent the last three years helping give our people on farm a better understanding of what a health and safety culture is and what safety conversations should be about,” he says.

Since late 2016 the company has included a safety culture programme where everyone carries out a one-day training course on safe leadership and managers complete a second day on how to lead teams – how to communicate with and direct their teams.

“People learn that first you have to lead yourself and keep yourself in-line so that you’re acting safely at all times – then you also have a responsibility to be a leader to others.

“Even the most junior person on farm can lead by example.”

Onfarm changes have been made too.

Quad bikes were removed from all dairy farms and most of the other Pāmu farms.

In some cases they were replaced by side-by-side vehicles with roll bars or two-wheelers.

A farm safety module was added to the FarmIQ farm management system (FMS) programme making it easier for all staff to report near misses and injuries as well as “health and safety observations.”

The near miss and injury reporting is collated and analysed at a company level helping to identify where the greatest risks are and inform policy to avoid them.

The information is shared back to farms.

Mark says the company now employs two farm health and safety business partners to work directly with farm managers and staff around the country and act as a liaison between the farms and management.

It’s a personalised and direct relationship and gives farm teams the one-on-one support they need.

The business partners read the toolbox meeting and FarmIQ reports from the farms and share the good ideas farms come up with.

Mark says that while the lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) per 200,000 hours metric isn’t perfect it has shown a positive trend downwards over the last two to three years.

The LTIFR for the dairy farms has dropped from the high teens to single figures.

“We’re starting to make some real progress now.”

Keeping hours worked over a two-week period to 100 hours, coupled with a six-and-two roster policy is helping reduce fatigue levels, important in helping keep people safe, Mark says.

Operations managers and business partners step in to see where support is needed if someone clocks more than 110 hours in a fortnight.

There’s also been a big focus over the last two years on mental wellness.

Courses on mental health first aid and mental health awareness have helped bring the subject to the fore and break down any stigma attached to it.

A programme on bullying and harassment has also helped improve behaviours on farm and lift the level of communication.

People now know what to look for with mental health and also how to get help.

Five safety expectations

  • Turn up ready for work in the right state of mind, drug and alcohol free.
  • Stop, think and then do the task safely.
  • Wear personal protective equipment and choose the right equipment for the task.
  • Choose the right vehicle for the task, conditions and skill level.
  • Speak up when you see unsafe behaviour and hazards.