Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Hey Nanny, what should I tell Dylan?

NZ farmer's safety suit (2015)
The government has had enough. A rising death and injury toll on farms has prodded it into action to make farming businesses accountable for safety as is the case for every other employer. 

So leads the front page of NZ Farmers Weekly this week as Minister Michael Woodhouse and his agency WorksafeNZ ramp up the heat on farmers in advance of a new law that will impose on farmers a "duty of care" for anyone on/in our "workplaces".

In the process, they're trying hard to distance themselves from the quadbike helmet fiasco, as well they might given that helmets are so ineffective and the authorities are not interested in rollbars or warrants of fitness. Not that they're resiling from their role in those proceedings of course; they're just trying to shift all the blame for outrageous fines onto the courts.

Anyway, it's important that farmers please don't get the idea that this new initiative will be a "ticketing exercise". No, no, not at all. Here's how it will work instead, according to the report.

  1. Worksafe inspectors will target areas and farmers will be asked if an inspector could visit to talk about farm safety and practices. [nice, polite]
  2. If farmers refuse, there would be random unannounced spot checks. [but definitely not a ticketing exercise]
Officials "did not want to wield a big stick", but when a WorkSafe inspector calls they might

  • Ask you to demonstrate evidence of how you manage health and safety on your farm and show workings of a safety system in use.
  • Check your hazard register to see what the hazards are and evidence of how you manage them.
  • Ask for evidence of a machinery, vehicle or plant maintenance schedule and check guards on machines or PTOs.
  • Ask you or your employees to demonstrate or explain how a machine works and how you adhere to manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Look at personal protective equipment and evidence that it's used.
  • Ask how you involve your employees in your health and safety planning and regular reviews.
  • Ask about how you use chemicals on your farm and check how they are stored.
  • Observe you carrying out regular work activities.
  • Ask how you induct contractors new staff and visitors on to your farm.
  • Ask you any other questions or view any part of your operation to assess how effectively you are safeguarding the health and safety of everyone on your farm. 

We are very safety conscious farmers running an average sized operation with about 2 FTE workers. We know our hazards, but haven't written them down in a register. We manage health and safety very well but don't have a documented "system".

So this all looks like misguided bureaucratic overkill designed for much bigger operations. It suggests that the rule makers have learned nothing from the quad bike helmet fiasco and have ignored specialist advice procured(pdf) on this very topic which includes the following.
The workplace health and safety agency will need a deep understanding of current workplace health and safety culture, and the different potential target groups of any culture change campaign.
I'm sure these folk are well-meaning, but their methods are terrible. If they really wanted to change the culture for SME farmers we would have been involved already in preliminary discussions about how we do things. There would have been bottom-up attempts to understand the existing culture through processes that actually work like the Land and Water Forum approach, or the way big companies hammer out mutually beneficial deals with unions. It is nothing like that.

So, unfortunately, this looks very much like a crackdown dressed up as an attempt to change the culture. The headline above is dead right: "the government has had enough", from which it follows that "something needs to be done" and since this is "something", it needs to be done. I'm sure we all know what would have been said if the Clark government had tried this approach: Nanny State.

We'll comply of course, though it sounds hugely time consuming and I'm certainly not promising to be friendly when the inspectors call. Actually, it'd have to be a fair bet that some farmers might struggle to contain a strong urge towards physical violence. I trust that WorkSafe will be issuing inspectors with suitable protective gear and instructing them in its use.

Meantime, here are a couple of questions for Nanny.

What should I tell Dylan, the boy down the road, next time he calls up asking to go for a walk in the evening looking for an eel? Maybe there's a pro-forma legal contract I could get him to sign that covers eeling, but maybe he's not old enough to sign and I'd be unfairly prevailing on him to "contract out" of my duty. Perhaps me and Dylan both need legal advice; I'm just not sure.

Also do I really have a duty of care to poachers who sneak into my "workplace" at night hunting wildlife? If so, any practical tips on how I should discharge that duty would be great, especially regarding actually capturing them, so we can discuss things. I'm assuming that booby traps are not recommended.

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