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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters


Changing the narrative

New Zealand’s largest corporate farmer is challenging the view that you can’t work on a farm and expect not to be hurt.

PETER BATEMAN reports.

There is no false modesty in Landcorp’s strategic plan, which says the organisation’s purpose is simply this: to transform New Zealand farming.

Our biggest corporate farmer, Landcorp’s 140 dairy and livestock farms and 700+ permanent staff are spread all over the country. Fleshing out the strategic plan, the company’s ambition is to lead the farming sector in its people practices, which includes challenging head-on the industry’s poor attitude to health and safety. Its actions to date won it the Leadership category at this year’s NZ Workplace Health and Safety Awards.

As Cushla Beale tells me when we meet in Wellington, the industry is dominated by mental models which are unhelpful: that you can’t farm without injuries, that it doesn’t matter what the rules say, that I’ve been doing it this way for years, that no one is going to see my short cuts, that she’ll be right.

“Good farmers have traditionally been seen as the ones who grow good animals and great grass, and care for people wasn’t seen as part of that. That’s not where Landcorp is.”

Beale, who is health, safety and quality manager, grew up on a farm and admits to helping out her father from early on. “I was steering the tractor at a pretty young age. Times have changed.”

Three or four years ago, she says, Landcorp’s view was that it had lots of safety systems and procedures in place and that it was doing fairly well. Dig down a little, however, and that’s where it stopped. So the first step was to break that internal myth and to acknowledge they weren’t as good as they thought.

PLAY IT SAFE

As a response, the Play it Safe campaign – a year in development – was launched in early 2014 and is intended to run for three to five years. The arrival of chief executive Steve Carden a few months before launch provided a further opportunity to raise the stakes and use Play it Safe as a platform for speaking out. Carden’s first significant tour of Landcorp properties came at the campaign launch, where he spoke at 15 farms around the country about nothing other than safety. It sent a powerful message to staff.

The key aim of the campaign is to challenge the widespread belief that it is not possible to work in farming without getting hurt. There will be four phases: engagement, changing behaviour, continuity, and refresh. To launch the first engagement phase a 15-venue roadshow presented all staff with branded shirt, drink bottle and other gear, and every farm with a new safety induction video and new set of posters. A colouring-in and poster design competition captured the attention of families and their children.

But who to choose to be the face of the campaign, to present in person with a powerful mix of farming credibility and toughness, someone who could talk the language of farming and be very direct with the message? Richard Loe, farmer and legendary All Black enforcer. Of course.

“He’s been in exactly the same place some of our guys were,” explains Beale. “He’s done all those wrong things. He’s been beneath a quad bike. He didn’t used to wear a helmet. He wasn’t someone sitting in an office. They could absolutely relate to him.”

Conversations at each roadshow venue focused on simple messages, such as having the courage to intervene if you see someone doing something unsafe, watching out for workmates, and making sure near misses are discussed as opportunities for learning.

“We wanted to create a brand,” says Beale. “Hence the gumboot tick, and the term Play it Safe. It was a deliberate decision not to use something like zero harm, because if you start using a term staff didn’t ever think was achievable they would switch off from the start.”

The message wasn’t all one-way. Feedback from staff at the launch sessions prompted a review of the training curriculum and of how Landcorp uses near misses and incidents as a learning tool for other farms.

The staff training programme will continue its focus on vehicle use and hazard management but will be extended to look at decision making and what a safe farm looks like. Also, farmers will be asked to carry out some specific task analyses under a framework provided by Landcorp. The idea is to unlock the knowledge in people’s heads about how tasks are done so best practice can be identified and shared, while acknowledging each farm is different and that a degree of flexibility is to be encouraged.

REGULATOR RELATIONSHIP

Landcorp has a close working relationship with WorkSafe, explained in part by the fact that Beale’s former boss, Al McCone, went to WorkSafe as manager of its agriculture programme. He therefore knew about the work Landcorp was doing and the simple, plain language safety material it had prepared.

Landcorp provided these materials to WorkSafe to assist with the launch of its own Safer Farms programme, and when WorkSafe wanted to upskill its inspectors on the hazards faced by farmers, it welcomed them onto its farms and ran training days for them.

The idea of welcoming inspectors into your workplace would strike some employers as plain scary, but Beale says the relationship built up through Safer Farms has been value for Landcorp too.

“Our farms get visited by inspectors just like any other. We certainly don’t school our guys up on what to say. We are confident of the systems in place. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but our guys understand that WorkSafe has a role to do.”

AN ALTERNATIVE VOICE

According to Beale, before Play it Safe and the arrival of Steve Carden – and the influence of former GM People & Capability Anna Cassels-Brown, now with Auckland Airport – Landcorp didn’t tend to talk in public about anything other than farming.

That has now changed, and Landcorp is providing an alternative public narrative about working safely on farms than that previously provided by others in the industry, especially in relation to quad bikes. At Landcorp, helmets on quad bikes and no passengers have been compulsory for a long time. Instead, she says, the helmet fuss flags something bigger.

“They’re just a symbol of a much deeper issue when it comes to safety. It’s a culture and attitude issue. The underlying acceptance that injuries are inevitable and that the number of people we kill in our industry is okay. If construction started killing as many people as agriculture there would be national outrage.”

AWARD DOUBTS

Back in early May, a few days after being advised that Landcorp was a finalist in the awards, the company was rocked by the deaths of two staff. One, near Westport, died in a quad bike incident on a farm. The other, on the East Coast of the North Island, died in a crash on a public road while travelling from one part of a farm to another in a side-by-side vehicle. The company was devastated.

“It was a really difficult time for the teams involved and for everybody in the wider organisation,” recalls Beale. Amidst offering all the support they could, she and Cassels-Brown had to decide whether to withdraw from the awards; in the end they decided to carry on to keep the faith with the organisation’s health and safety journey.

“We are a reflection of our industry and we are trying incredibly hard to change what has been a long-standing culture of safety not really being a priority. And we are making progress.”

Having decided to keep their entry in play, and to attend the awards gala dinner, it took real courage to step up and speak when Landcorp was announced as the category winner. Anyone who was there will remember Cassel-Brown’s emotionally charged acceptance speech.

Beale says the award was accepted on behalf of its people who work on the farms. “It’s our people on the farms who live and breathe our commitment to safety every day who are making a difference. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with such a passionate and dedicated group.”

The deaths have prompted a review of what on-farm vehicle use should look like in the future. A decision has been made to phase out quad bikes on dairy farms, but Beale says quad bikes might continue to be the safest option in some circumstances on the livestock farms.

“Quads are a very emotive subject. The issue is that when people make a mistake – and as people we inevitably do – they are very unforgiving. There are limited safety features you can add to a quad bike, and there’s debate about roll-over protection.”

NEW INITIATIVES

Further activities are under way, both on Landcorp’s farms and at an industry leadership level. New safety notebooks have been supplied to all staff which – to continue the rugby analogy courtesy Richard Loe – include red and yellow cards to promote reporting of hazards: jot it down, tear it out, give it to the farm manager. They’ve been flooding in.

Another version of the notebook has safety observation cards instead of hazard report cards, along with five questions to start a safety conversation. The idea is that anybody who visits a farm can easily report things they see, good or not so good. These too are starting to arrive. The idea is to enable the team to spot any trends which develop.

A regular one-page safety newsletter goes out to all staff, with pictures and graphs and short conversation pieces to acknowledge good reporting, or someone who stopped something risky, or a farmer who comes up with an initiative. Previously such communications only went to the farm manager, but the new distribution reflects the company’s view that health and safety is everyone’s business.

Recently there was a nationwide Stop for Safety, where everyone downed tools for an hour. A suite of materials was prepared for each farm manager, including a video from the CEO and some talking points for discussion. Then each farm manager was required to formulate his or her own personal commitment for OHS and to share it with the team, and then invite each team member to share their own specific commitment.

I ask if there were reports of embarrassment at having to come up with something in public like this, but Beale says no.

“It’s another leadership space. If you ask the farm manager to publicly voice their commitment it empowers everyone else to feel they can voice theirs as well.”

MORE LEADERSHIP

Landcorp has taken the lead to identify five other corporate farming organisations and has invited them all to join in a benchmarking group, the idea being to share incidents and also ideas.

The aim is to model the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum and eventually be able to produce a regular benchmarking report of incidents and near misses. The group is expected to meet for the first time towards the end of this year. Alongside this, Steve Carden is using his BLHSF contacts to create a similar group at chief executive level.

Having gone well down the track with safety, Landcorp is now beginning to move into the health space. On-farm health check trials are under way in the Taupo region covering things like hearing, vision, lung function, cholesterol, weight and blood pressure.

“We’ve had a lot of focus on safety and not a lot on health. Farmers aren’t great at making the drive into town to see a doctor. For some it takes two hours.”

The organisation is also in the process of developing a mental health programme to be trialled in a few months. There is an EAP service available already, but Beale acknowledges the awkwardness in picking up the phone to speak to someone you don’t know.

“The biggest health issue in the ag sector is mental health. Depression and the impact of lack of sleep. How far down is it OK to be down? We are developing scenarios and material for everyone, including for farm managers to recognise the signs and what actions to take.”

THE JOURNEY

Farms, concludes Beale, are a unique working environment with their own special challenges, where the dividing line between work and non-work can be unusually blurry.

She is the first to acknowledge putting out the odd video isn’t going to change things overnight, and that with 140 farms, some are inevitably further ahead than others. But the work continues.

“Our view is that if we can drive the right culture within our own organisation, it will grow outside our own fencelines. That’s definitely a journey.”

PETER BATEMAN

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