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Agriculture safety questioned in WA

Some in the Western Australian agricultural industry believe promoting safety is a waste of time, while others say they are not subject to work health and safety regulations, an inquiry has found.



A culture of self-reliance within the industry is also likely to have led to massive under-reporting of workplace safety incidents, and many farmers work while injured, according to the findings.


The report to the Worksafe Commissioner follows an independent inquiry into the agricultural industry after 12 workers died on the job in the year to June 2022.

"Each death is a tragedy in itself and in its effect on loved ones, communities and businesses," former chief industrial relations commissioner Pamela Scott said in the report released on Tuesday.


"Each serious injury affects not only the injured person at the time and during their recovery, but often for the rest of their life.


"It also affects their families, communities and businesses."


The agricultural industry has had the highest number of deaths of all industries in WA and Australia for many years, with the fatalities in WA in 2021-22 significantly higher than in previous years.


The industry employs about 45,000 workers in more than 5000 businesses ranging from small family-owned-and-operated farms through to large corporate operations.

Ms Scott noted the industry's peak bodies may not be focused on safety and some leaders have said the effort required to promote safety was a waste of time or a nuisance.


The inquiry also found many in the industry were afraid of Worksafe and the state's new industrial manslaughter law has led to scaremongering, panic and alarm.


Ms Scott said many agriculture workers were older men and it was not generally accepted that ageing brings reduced physical strength and agility.


"They need to be encouraged to adjust the work they do and how they do it to take account of these changes," she said.


The inquiry also found some farmers believe they're not subject to work health and safety regulation and if they are, it is only in respect of paid workers.


"They view the farm as being about family and a way of life rather than a business," Ms Scott said.

The report said there was also likely to be a gross under-reporting of serious injuries to the regulator and a lack of claims for workers' compensation.


Many owner-operators "make do" after injury and work while they recover.

"I have heard stories of farmers continuing to drive equipment with a broken foot or leg propped up, or of driving one-handed, to ensure that work is performed where it is urgent," Ms Scott said.

"This is part of the culture of self-reliance within the agricultural industry."

Ms Scott made eight recommendations, including that a safety inspection and education team be formed to bolster awareness in the industry.


A code of practice should also be implemented and the regulator should engage with equipment manufacturers to improve machinery safety.


Ms Scott also called for safety alerts to be sent to farmers regarding the use of some equipment, such as quad bikes.


Owen Whittle, UnionsWA secretary, said the report was concerning and a culture of ignoring safety has become embedded in parts of the industry.


He said farm work deaths accounted for 25 per cent of all workplace fatalities in the decade to 2021-22 and greater oversight was needed to protect workers

.

"This industry is dangerously unsafe (and) it is long overdue for reform and far too little has been done in the industry in terms of keeping them accountable," said.


WorkSafe Commissioner Darren Kavanagh said he supports the majority of the recommendations.

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