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Safeguard Magazine

Overturning Beliefs

New Zealand’s largest corporate farmer aims to change the way the agricultural sector thinks about safety. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

What’s the biggest safety issue facing our agricultural sector?

According to Landcorp’s Anna Cassels-Brown, it’s not quad bikes, or livestock, or manual handling, but the widely held belief among farm workers that it’s not possible to do the job without getting hurt.

“The industry seems to accept that farming is a dangerous occupation and injuries go with the territory,” she says. “When I joined Landcorp’s leadership team just before Christmas, I asked the health and safety manager how many medical treatment injuries there’d been in the previous year, and he said 180 – from 628 staff!”

Cassels-Brown, who is general manager – people and capability, has been told that Landcorp’s injury figures are actually quite good compared to the rest of the industry, and she’s amazed that the sector’s grim statistics have not provoked national outrage.

“There’s a Pike River scale of tragedy on New Zealand farms every year, so why aren’t we up in arms about it? Landcorp may be better than others in agriculture, but agriculture’s terrible. I’m not content to only be better than the worst. We want to be as good as the best workplaces.”

It’s an attitude shared by Landcorp CEO Steve Carden, who quickly turned his attention to farm safety when he was appointed to the executive team last August. Under his leadership the country’s largest corporate farmer has made a commitment to improve agriculture’s poor safety record – and change the negative expectations that underpin it – not just at the 151 farms staffed by Landcorp, but across the industry as a whole.

The appointment of Cassels-Brown, who previously had executive responsibility for health and safety at Refining NZ’s high-hazard Marsden Point plant, was part of this process. Not only is she first woman on the executive team in Landcorp’s 26-year history, but she is also the first team member to represent the people of the company – a move that she believes signifies an important change of focus.

People at the centre

The key to safety, she says, is putting people front and centre of the business, whereas historically the organisation has centred on its land and animals.

“If we’re serious about changing the way we work it’s fundamental to put our people into that position. If you want to be New Zealand’s best farmer, what matters is the calibre of the people who work for you and the thinking they bring to bear each day.”

Her refinery experience leaves her with little patience for those who regard farm accidents as inevitable.

“If a business with the potential to blow people up, burn them to death, and gas them, only has three or four serious injuries a year, then I’m sure as hell that a farming enterprise of similar personnel scale can do better than hurting 180.”

When Cassels-Brown joined Landcorp a new safety campaign was about to be rolled out. She spent her first three months travelling the country participating in its launch with Carden and others from the leadership team.

“I was incredibly fortunate. During the launch I got to meet every single person who works for Landcorp, and to sit down with them and have a conversation about what was worrying them on the safety front.”

Richard Loe’s message

The new campaign was structured around a safety video, fronted by farmer and former All Black Richard Loe – a choice that initially caused Cassels-Brown some concern.

“I thought oh my goodness, why him? But he’s been a roaring success! He was chosen because he is a farmer, and as a rugby player he has a rough, tough reputation that we felt would connect really well with our people.”

In the video Loe reinforced Landcorp’s cardinal rules for quad bikes – use a helmet, carry no passengers, and don’t exceed 30 km/h, the speed to which helmets are rated. He also accompanied the leadership team to each of the 15 site meetings, talking openly about his own safety failures on the farm and their consequences.

“He stood in front of our guys and said: “Look I want to make a confession. I’ve been bad. I didn’t used to wear a helmet. I’ve been under a quad bike. I’ve done all the wrong things. I’ve been hurt and I don’t like it.”

“It was great because he’s got street cred with our demographic: ‘If the roughest, toughest bastard on the rugby field believes this is what he has to do to farm safely, then what the hell’s my excuse?’

Feedback from staff

Beyond the video, the format of the campaign launch was deliberately simple. The CEO and his team took the opportunity to meet workers, reinforce their own commitment to safety, and challenge staff to make it part of their daily lives.

“We, as a leadership team, stood up in front of our people and told them that safety is our absolute number one priority, and they need to make it theirs.

“We also told them why we’re interested in safety – not because of productivity, or because we don’t want to be explaining ourselves in front of a judge, but because we care about our people and don’t want them to get hurt.”

The team told workers that safety was going to become a daily topic of conversation, the number one item on every agenda, and the back story to everything else that happened, on every farm. But they also took time to listen. What they heard wasn’t always comfortable. There was reluctant agreement that sometimes injuries and war stories are seen as the mark of a real farmer, negative feedback about the quality of some farm houses, complaints that NZQA training alone is not adequate preparation for the realities of farm work, and heated reactions to a request that near misses be reported.

“If they had to report every one of them, they said, it would be the only thing they’d do. We had a bit of a discussion about why near misses are important and whether we need to see every report or if they should sometimes just discuss it on the farm and resolve the issue as quickly as they can. It was good because they could see how near misses can be used to avoid serious accidents.”

Telling their stories

In a campaign intended to change thinking rather than enforce rules, however, some of the best moments were when workers began telling their own stories.

“Farm managers were standing up and saying “I want to tell you that the reason I talk to people about safety all the time is because when I worked for another organisation somebody died.”

“The conversations flushed out that real depth of human experience, and gave people an opportunity to talk really frankly about what good farming looks like.”

Workers were also challenged to reexamine their own expectations in light of their colleagues’ views.

“I asked if it was possible to work on a farm all your life without getting injured. There were people saying they’d broken a finger every year, or whatever. But there were also those who were going: ‘Well, yeah. I’ve been on a farm for 40 years and never been injured in my life.’ It created a dialogue about what is possible, and what gets in the way.”

The conversations did have limits, however, and it was made clear that there was no place at Landcorp for anyone who did not want to work safely.

“We had one guy who just didn’t want to work under our quad bike rules. He resigned rather than wear a helmet, and we’re ok with that. If he won’t wear a helmet we don’t want him here.”

Despite the success of the meetings Cassels-Brown acknowledges that safety performance isn’t going to change just because people have seen a video and had a chat with the leadership team. What lies ahead is a continued working out of the strategies and commitment that gave the roadshow its momentum.

“The sessions identified some tactical areas where we need to improve. We’ll be reviewing the training curriculum to up our game in that area, and have to get much better at reviewing our serious incidents and taking those learnings to other farms. We’re also conscious of the need to do more to keep the kids who live on our farms safe.”

The most important thing, however, is to maintain “utter consistency” on the part of the leadership team, to ensure safety becomes an integral part of every process and every discussion.

“Lots of really good stuff has come out of the campaign, but I guess for me the biggest thing is we are just having different kinds of conversations around safety and putting it to the fore, talking about it not as a cost or a compliance issue but as something that’s important because it’s about our people.

“There’s no silver bullet that will fix agricultural safety. It’ll take time before working safely on farms is in our DNA, but we’re attacking the issue on lots of little fronts, and really a huge amount of it is about mindset.”

Technology trials

Behind the conversations and the commitment Landcorp is also working with agricultural suppliers to develop the best and the safest products and processes.

Currently it is partnering with New Zealand technology company Black Hawk Tracking and quad bike importer Blue Wing Honda to pilot a multi-function device called Farm Angel, which fits onto a quad bike. It uses a GPS to report where the bike has been, motion sensors to tell what it’s been on and how fast it’s been ridden, and an automatic emergency man-down function that dials a preset number and puts out a signal that helicopters can trace if there’s a rollover.

“It means that after any accident, not only is there a quick rescue, but we can also determine exactly what went wrong.”

Eighty units are currently being trialled, and if successful they will be installed on all Landcorp quads.

This capacity to test new ideas, Cassels-Brown says, is a real advantage for Landcorp.

“We’re a good partner for organisations that want to put their safety ideas to the test because we’ve got the scale and the range of environments. It’s in our interests to make farming safer, so we’re very interested in hearing from anyone who has a credible option they want to test.”

Quad bike safety is one key area where the safety message is gaining real traction within Landcorp.

“Now, if our people see someone on another farm riding with no helmet, jandals and a pair of board shorts, they go “You dickhead - that’s the way to get hurt.”

“There has been a sea change, and we’re looking to spill it over into wider industry.

“If Landcorp’s leading the way that’s wonderful, but the reality is that we produce only 1.5% of New Zealand’s primary produce. The other farms out there employ a lot more people, farm a lot more land, and have a lot more injuries and fatalities.

“Stopping our people getting hurt is our first priority, but we won’t be satisfied until we see a shift in the overall safety performance of the agricultural sector.”

Is safe farming a realistic vision? Cassels-Brown is convinced that it is. Farm machinery, such as quad bikes, chainsaws, wood splitters, gates and head bails, account for a large proportion of incidents, and she is confident that in a robust safety culture 90% of these would be eliminated.

The second largest cause of injury – animals – is more problematic

“Some say you can’t avoid these injuries because you can’t predict what the animal will do, but there are lots of ways to be smarter around animals. We may not be able to eliminate every risk out of farming, but I think we can do a huge amount to reduce the number of injuries.

“We know it can be done because we have exemplars within Landcorp, and the interesting thing is that our most productive farms that have the most engaged teams, the happiest teams, and the best leadership are also the safest farms.

“There is no reason why every single one of our farms shouldn’t be the same, and if our farms can be safe why can’t every farm in the country?”

Jackie Brown-Haysom

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