Toll on the land

New Zealand farms see more fatalities every year than any other industry. Elaine Fisher reports.

If 14 politicians, nurses or teachers, or people from almost any other industry lost their lives at work in a year, something would be done.

“Why is it that we accept these fatalities in agriculture?” Andre Syben, owner of Ag Drive asks. The company is Waikato’s largest agricultural vehicle training provider.

The horrendous toll of death and injury and lack of action to prevent harm frustrate Andre and his team of trainers.

WorkSafe data shows that from January 1 – March 31 this year, there were five farm fatalities and 30 WorkSafe notifiable injuries. In the 12 months to January 2023, there were 14 fatalities. Annually there are more fatalities on farms than in any other industry in New Zealand.

“More needs to be done to keep people safe. One death is one too many. To have five in three months is frankly inexcusable.”

Andre says a culture shift and more commitment from the entire agricultural supply chain is needed to improve the statistics. He doesn’t want farmers facing more compliance and costs but wants the “whole food chain” involved.

“From corporates who farmers supply, to farm owners and employers of farm staff, and workers themselves, we all have a responsibility to keep everyone safe.

“Passing the buck, softening the message and only talking about it isn’t going to cut it. We need a serious commitment from industry and Government and a practical strategy to change the culture. Buy-in and support from corporate industry is what is lacking.

“Where are the corporates mandating that their suppliers meet stringent health and safety standards? Where is the Government? We need to take collective ownership. These organisations should be subsidising the cost of training to farmers to make it more accessible,” he says.

Programmes like Ag Drive’s vehicle and machinery training exist, and the health and safety frameworks are already there. “Training is only one part of the solution, and Ag Drive training focuses on building a safety culture.

“It’s not just about vehicle safety, it’s about the culture. One of the things we say to people is, if you think you shouldn’t be there, you’re probably right. Trust your intuition, trust your gut feeling. If in doubt, stop, think and assess the situation you’re in and take some time.”

AgDrive runs most of its one-day courses at the NZ National Fieldays Society (NZNFS) venue Mystery Creek Events Centre, near Hamilton, and began three years ago during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We were operating a research and development agri-machinery business for an offshore company and Covid lockdowns impacted our ability to travel.

“We saw a gap in the market for agricultural machinery training courses and initially had funding from the Ministry of Social Development to deliver tractor driver training

to people who had lost jobs due to Covid.”

Once the funding ended the company moved to offering training in quad bikes, side-by-side vehicles, two-wheel bikes, chainsaws and tractors. As well as courses on the rugged terrain at Mystery Creek, the company takes its programmes on the road, training people on farms throughout the country.

“We are also working with some schools, delivering training to students in the use of chainsaws and motor bikes.

“As little time as possible is spent in the classroom. In fact, the classroom component can be done online so that the whole one-day course is spent on practical training.”

Training people to safely operate and maintain machinery and equipment will not only help prevent death and injury, it will also improve productivity and the agricultural industry’s reputation as a safe place to work, Andre says.

In speaking out about the shocking injury and death statistics through radio, television and print media in May, Andre says he opened a can of worms and copped some flak.

“I really don’t care. If what I said helps save one life, I’m on the way to achieving what I want to personally. Workers needed to come home safe.”

Ag Drive is putting its money where its mouth is to get things started. The Ag Drive ‘Change the Culture’ Campaign gave away 10 x 1 day machinery operation Ag Drive Courses for free, to the value of $6500. Winners were drawn at the 2023 National Fieldays.

The New Zealand Stats

  • 41 farmers have lost their lives in the last five years while working onfarm
  • Five deaths on farms between January 1 and March 31 this year
  • 14 agricultural fatalities in 2022 
  • 255 vehicle incidents causing injuries resulting in more than a week away from work in 2022 
  • 22,000 injuries a year – a lack of labour, big machines and lapses in concentration are blamed for more than 22,000 farm injuries a year
  • 45,000 injuries to farmers’ backs, fingers, shoulders, and knees registered in the last five years
  • 42,000 soft tissue injuries registered since 2020
  • 137,642 claims for harm on farm registered collectively across the agricultural sector since July 2016

 (Source Ag Drive and Worksafe)