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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

From zombies to zealots

A Rangitikei dairy farm won the Small Business category in this year’s Safeguard awards. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM finds out what gave them the winning edge.

The morning Stuart Taylor walked into the staffroom and saw his teenage dairy assistants slumping in their seats with exhaustion he knew it was time to make some radical changes.

A lifelong farm boy and co-owner of Regents Park Farm near Bulls, Taylor had always accepted that long hours and hard work were the trade-off for having what he regards as one of the best jobs in the country.

By 2013 however, he had four young children and was struggling to keep up with the competing demands of farm work and family life.

“I’ve always had the culture that management leads from the front and works the hardest,” he says. “So even though I was feeling the pressure and wanted to button back on my hours, I couldn’t justify doing that unless I dropped everyone’s hours and changed the whole system.”

That morning, the realisation that his workers were so drained they were starting to lose their passion for the job was the incentive he needed to embark on a programme of transformational change.

“These young men were only 16, 17, 18 years old. They’d been up since 3am, and when I saw them at mid-morning they were just zombies. They loved the job when they started, but over a six month period you could see the work really taking a toll, and that just didn’t seem right.”

The established farm culture of working long and hard grew out of the traditional premise that workers would eventually buy their own farms, but with that now unattainable for all but a few, it’s time, he says, for an industry-wide rethink.

LONG WORKING HOURS

But how do you reduce hours and improve flexibility when you have 1000 cows to milk, 450 hectare of pasture to tend, and only half a dozen workers? The first step, Taylor decided, was to replace the salaries that all workers then received with hourly rates, based on a 45 to 55-hour working week, for all non-management staff.

“When workers were on salaries there was no discipline around how many hours they worked, and no driver for the manager to be more efficient and get them home on time. Seventy-hour weeks were quite common.

“When we introduced hourly rates, all of a sudden there was real motivation to make sure work was done efficiently. ‘He’s just worked one hour, and it’s cost us $20. What have we achieved?’

The best part about paying wages, however, is the flexibility it has introduced.

In his childhood, Taylor says, the ability to take breaks from time to time was what helped his parents cope with the pressures of farming. He wanted his workers to have a similar measure of choice about how they spent their time, so they could have a great job and still have a life.

“The salary system can become very rigid. If one person’s not there but everyone else is, there’s always a slight feeling of “Why aren’t they working?”

“But with hourly rates, if you want to take time off for your kids’ pet day or something, it’s not a problem. If you’re not working, you’re not getting paid, so there’s transparency.”

The changes weren’t initially popular, with workers sceptical about the motivation behind them and anxious about what they would mean in practice.

“It was fear of the unknown. A couple of people left, and some took a while to get used to not working all the time, but once they adapted they found it was great.

“Now it’s the normal way round here, and we’re starting to attract workers because of it, but it’s still pretty different to what’s happening in the rest of the country.”

A 50-hour week is now the average at Regents Park. Taylor would like to reduce it further, but says at present that isn’t achievable.

“I guess the solution, when the [dairy] payout goes up again, will be to crank up the pay and drop the hours, but I can’t do that right now.”

SETTING AN EXAMPLE

In the meantime Taylor and farm manager Mark Broughton make sure they, as salaried staff, set good examples for their employees in how they manage their time and maintain positive work-life balance.

Before, he says, he was working 80 or 90 hours a week, but is now averaging 58 hours, over five-and-a-bit days a week.

“There are ebbs and flows of course, but I use a phone app to monitor it and that allows me to manage it pretty carefully. It’s still reasonably high in relation to other occupations, but because I live on the farm there’s no travel time, and I can pop home anytime during the day if I want to.”

While he enjoys being able to have breakfast with his family and fit in a regular run, the benefits of doing shorter hours are not limited to his private life.

“The longer hours do come at a cost. You don’t deal with emotional pressures so well when you’re tired. And if you’re not working so hard you’re more productive, more skilful and efficient when you are on the job.”

TURNING TO SAFETY

Last year, with his workers’ health in good shape thanks to the shorter hours, Taylor turned his primary focus to safety. He’d used health and safety consultants from time to time but wasn’t seeing the changes on the front line that he knew were needed. Neriah Broughton, wife of farm manager Mark, had been helping out with administrative work for OB Group Farm, the parent company for Regents Park and three other dairy units in the same area. He invited her to move into a health and safety role for the group.

“I was keen, because it’s about caring for people,” she says. “But when I looked at the way things had been done, it was all rules and regulations and policies and paper, which doesn’t fit well with the people who work here.

“I had to think fast to come up with a better way of doing it.”

Her starting point was to set up weekly meetings on all the farms, so she could begin to explain why H&S was important, and what it meant in practice.

“It was a good way to get a conversation started, and to demystify health and safety a bit. Up till then everyone thought it was just about signs, and helmets on bikes – and they all thought I was there to watch them and tell them what they were doing wrong.”

As workers began to understand that H&S was for their own protection, they became more willing to talk about it, and share the issues they had with existing systems.

“Getting the guys to file hazard, near-hit and incident reports had always been a problem. They told me they didn’t like coming into the office to fill in the forms, and they didn’t get any feedback.”

The system needed an overhaul, and with a background in IT, Broughton decided to move away from a paper-based format in favour of a phone app, so reports could be completed and submitted without leaving the job.

What she came up with is an easy-to-use interactive programme in which workers photograph the hazard or incident scene, and fill in the details on an online form. This can be done on a smart phone, or from a tablet in the cow shed.

When reports are filed the sender gets immediate acknowledgement and an investigation process is put into action, often involving front line workers. When completed, outcomes and any follow-up actions that are required are added to the initial report to ensure everyone is kept informed.

Broughton says the new system has made a difference at multiple levels by keeping things moving along. Previously she had to physically collect the reporting forms and transfer the information to a spreadsheet. Now there’s no double-handling and reports are escalated much more quickly, meaning people will often get feedback on what they report before the end of the day.

The app has an educative function too, with the questions on the reporting form carefully chosen to get people thinking about the wider implications of what they’re reporting, including the likelihood of someone else getting hurt.

“We’re raising awareness and building a shared perception of risk,” Broughton says. “It’s definitely increased reporting. We’re getting hazard reports every week now, where previously we had very few. We still need a bit more work on near-hits, but that’s the dairying culture. There’s a general belief that risk is part of the job, so when they have a near-hit they don’t stop to think about it and recognise it for what it is.”

After seeing how the app has become a catalyst for H&S awareness at Regents Park, Taylor believes it has exciting potential, not just for OB Group, but for the farming sector as a whole.

“I think it offers the opportunity to transform health and safety in agriculture,” he says. “We’re working with corporate famers to spread this app across corporate agriculture, and have a rough plan that we could lead change in agriculture by introducing it to the corporates first, then filtering down to the smaller entities.”

In tandem with the app’s introduction, all farms in the OB Group have appointed health and safety team leaders – frontline workers who take an active role in day-today H&S management.

SHIFTING CONTROL TO WORKERS

“This has been a fundamental shift, because it’s put the control of health and safety with the workers rather than with managers,” Taylor says. With so much on a manager’s plate, there was always the risk that H&S would just get tagged on at the end.

“With team leaders to support them this doesn’t happen, because it’s a big part of the leader’s role, and it comes with extra responsibility, status – and a bit more pay.”

Like managers, team leaders receive immediate notification of all hazard and incident reports, and can be asked to lead the investigation process that follows on from them. If a matter is urgent they’ll work through it, assign controls and put out corrective actions straight away, but if it can hold until the next team meeting it will be, so that the whole team can get involved in the discussion.

Reflecting on her first year as health and safety advisor, she’s excited about how attitudes have changed on the farm, and relieved that no one still thinks of her as the H&S policewoman.

“We’re not there yet, but health and safety is no longer that thing that nobody understands,” she says. “The guys talk about it now in the same way they talk about milking or fencing. It’s become part and parcel of everything we do.”

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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