Calls for a safety rethink as agriculture sector seeks to attract new workers

With the agriculture industry seeking to recruit people from other sectors in the wake of COVID-19, there are calls for more emphasis to be placed on safety on farms.

Praised as the backbone of the economy during the lockdown, the Government has high hopes for the primary industries in the country's economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic. 

With many parts of the industry facing severe worker shortages - in large part due to migrant workers unable to arrive in New Zealand - Kiwis who have lost their jobs in hard-hit industries such as hospitality and tourism are being encouraged to give farming or horticulture a go.

But Tony Watson, general manager of the Agricultural Leaders' Health and Safety Action Group, says employers have a responsibility to make sure any new recruits are well looked after on a farm.

"Agriculture is the most dangerous sector in the country," Watson told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Wednesday.

"It's a sad record, we've got to change that, we're working to change that."

According to ACC, there were more than 21,000 injury claims in 2019 relating to agricultural work, with the sector accounting for 9 percent of work-related injury costs last year.

Watson says the industry already faces challenges when it comes to safety, though with more inexperienced people moving in the chances of an accident happening could go up.

"We've got to be really careful with new people coming into the sector," he said.

"They'll all excited about the opportunity to work on farm and work in the sector somewhere and we've got to have them excited about wanting to come in there but equally look after them when they get here so they want to stay.

"And part of that is obviously making sure that they don't get hurt or injured at work - that is a key focus really that we're trying to make sure that any employer takes onboard."

Watson said too many employers in the industry view health and safety as merely a box to tick.

"It's really unfortunate we've ended up getting to a point where health and safety seems like it's only paperwork. Because actually health and safety is about doing the job well in a way that looks after your people, doing it in a way that's not going to hurt people, doing it in a way that is the most efficient and effective way to do it," he said.

"People just think they're covering their bums in a way to tick the box for health and safety, it's all wrong - so we've got to really adjust that and get the thinking around it's an attitude, it's a decision that we make, it's the behaviours that we do every day, and it's really important that we teach new people coming into the sector that's how we do safety."

Room to learn

Despite the challenges, Watson says new workers in the industry also bring fresh opportunities for farmers to improve their safety procedures.

"A lot of these new people in the sector might not come from a farming it's really up to us to help show them and tell them what could go wrong," says Watson. 

"But equally they will bring some very transferable kind of skills."

He says if farmers are open to learning from the new recruits both sides may benefit.

"We might say 'no that's not how we do it around here' but actually as an unsafe sector we've got to change some stuff anyway. So maybe these new folk might bring some ideas that could actually be helpful on-farm if we're prepared to take them on board."

Earlier this month, the Government announced an ambitious new plan to boost primary sector exports by $44 billion over the coming decade.

Although the plan was criticised by the Opposition as being "unrealistic" it comes at a time when the general view of farmers and the agriculture industry is on the up.

According to a survey conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown, the pandemic has given Kiwis a new appreciation for farmers and the primary industries.

"No question about it's got to be seen as an opportunity. In order to drag the nation out of what could be a terrible economic time, clearly agriculture is being looked at finally under a nice shiny light and we've got to do our bit. And a big part of that is having good productive people on-farm and getting amongst it and keeping them safe at work."

Watson says it's up to farmers now to also improve the reputation of safety in the sector.

"It's not about paperwork and signs and there's nobody looking over your shoulder. There's no supervisor or CCTV camera that you might have in a warehouse or whatever," he says. 

"You've got to be savvy, you've got to be looking after yourself - and that starts by having the right attitude."