By Alicia Smith and SafeWork NSW
As featured in the 2019 Country Web Annual
Farming accounts for one in every five deaths in Australian workplaces, yet the industry makes up just 2.6 percent of Australia’s workforce. In 10 years there hasn’t been much improvement in the fatality rate and it goes without saying that if you’re male you’re more likely to get killed or injured.
When Alicia Smith’s younger brother Lachie died on their family farm, devastation was an understatement. It was a tragedy that deeply impacted not only her family, but an entire community of people her brother had touched in his 26 short years. Lachie was performing an everyday task that day, riding the quad bike to muster cattle with his dad. The quad hummed along on a piece of flat landscape among dry, short brown grass, on a familiar path through old gums in the summer heat. Lachie was on his own when the quad tipped onto its side, pinning him underneath. He never arrived to help his dad, but his dad eventually found him. You can only imagine the gut wrenching pain and sadness that followed. It was an unnatural turn of events and it shattered his family’s world.
Alicia was kilometres away when she got the news. Wearing a suit, surrounded by steel and glass in Sydney’s CBD, she heard the words and was confronted with the tragedy, but it seemed unbelievable. Having to grieve a sibling, now another farm accident statistic permanently changed her.
After Lachie’s death, Alicia felt a pull to take her experience and passion for helping others and make it a career. She herself is no stranger to farming accidents – having broken her arm falling off the back of the work ute when she was young she is equipped with an acute consciousness of what can go wrong.
Becoming a rural work health and safety (WHS) inspector for SafeWork NSW was one way Alicia could find purpose in tragedy. Once she completed her health degree she put herself to the task of helping injured workers return to work. Her goal as a WHS inspector was, and is, to help farming families across NSW understand the risks and hazards they live and work with, ever hopeful that she can help prevent further misery.
Alicia shares her own story as part of this endeavour, to educate others about the risks on farms so that they may, like her, participate in a cultural shift toward establishing farm safety front of mind. She also shares her story because, she says when it comes to WHS, women are an untapped resource for change.
Until 1994, gender discrimination was blatant, women were not legally insurable on the land – they were deemed ‘silent partners’, restricted from voting in farming organisations and, until the early 1970s, excluded from enrolment in agricultural courses. Gender inequality in farming has not only limited women’s visibility, their financial and succession prospects, it has limited their ability to frame policy and practice and to make the sort of authoritative contributions that establish and maintain safety cultures.
The fact that men are more likely to get hurt and killed is a legacy of historical and contemporary gendered divisions of labour. Such divisions have meant men and women inhabit separate spheres of labour and hierarchical legitimacy, and are thus segregated from conversations and practices of safety.
Alicia said moving into the 21st century, the role of women in agriculture is shifting and women are taking their rightful places as equals in the agriculture industry.
‘Women were once perceived as wives or farmhands, never owners, managers or farmers in their own right. We’ve had a long history of gender inequality in agriculture; even my grandfather had a succession plan centred around his male sons. Inequality has repercussions, not just for the loss of economic potential and workforce participation but the shape and reality of health outcomes on farms. Women should no longer accept the back seat; they should be driving practical safety messaging such as safe work procedures around guarding machinery, helmets on quads and motorbikes, seatbelts in work utes and side-by-side vehicles, and ensuring workers are properly trained. We need to ensure women are a part of the conversations and decision-making that embeds safety into routine and farming culture,’ Alicia said.
The risks facing farmers are as significant as they are preventable. Some of the most dangerous hazards include quad bikes, tractors, unguarded machinery and power take off drives. Younger workers in the 20-29 year age group are particularly susceptible to injury and 45-54 year olds need more time off work when they do get hurt.
John Ringland, SafeWork NSW Director of Northern Operations said preventing tragedies lies at the heart of WHS.
‘Establishing better, safer, ways to work and live on farms and making that part of the ordinary is what will save lives and prevent injuries. Despite more women pursuing leadership roles in farming businesses and gaining legitimacy in legal and institutional spheres, to significantly improve work health and safety in the agricultural sector, we must also empower women in agriculture to take a proactive role in safety,’ John said.
Women have the power to influence and drive home key WHS messages as well as establish practical solutions for farm safety and they can do this from whatever functional position they occupy in farm life. Since the 1980s, the rural women’s movement has challenged the perception of farmers being male, by telling rural women’s stories and changing the narrative about who does what in farming. In reality, female farmers make enormous contributions even from positions of marginality: they produce 49 per cent of farm income but only hold 2.3 per cent of CEO positions, compared to 17 per cent in other industries.
While more women making decisions is a good thing in such a gender-imbalanced industry, it is important for women to realise that even if they don’t run the physical side of a farming business, as a partner or officer they are still liable for their workers. As mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters their family’s lives depend on them. Women’s role as leaders for change is crucial in this respect.
‘SafeWork NSW recognises the powerful voice of women in agriculture and their potential to induce cultural change. In response to the high number of fatalities and injuries in farming, SafeWork NSW published the Agriculture Work, Health & Safety Sector Plan. As part of this plan, SafeWork NSW is developing an initiative to enhance women’s knowledge and understanding of WHS.
‘Women in Agriculture will focus on and assist women working on farms to meet their work health and safety and return to work obligations,’ John said.
As Alicia’s involvement in a new SafeWork NSW initiative testifies, the power of women’s voices to reduce the incidences of farm-related injury and death can be amplified by gender equality which is improving both the visibility of women in agriculture and their capacity to embed safety cultures into the agricultural landscape. Alicia is motivated to change the stories behind the statistics and use her voice and experiences to influence the industry’s view on safety. Despite having faced the worst juncture of gender, industry and hazard, losing her brother in this unholy collide, Alicia is constantly saddened by the past but undaunted at the prospect of building women’s capacity for a safety revolution in agriculture.
‘I wouldn’t change a thing from my childhood – a farm is one of the most exciting and eye opening places for a child to be brought up. My goal is to help provide leadership to facilitate change in the community and the organisation I work for is the best vehicle from which to do that.
‘SafeWork NSW wants to provide women in the NSW agriculture sector with the confidence and capability to have their voice heard, to start a safety conversation from the kitchen table and take it out to the paddocks. Women have a strong role, and a powerful one at that, to ensure the success and future viability of farming production. I see women being safety game changers in the face of disregard. Attitudes like ‘that’ll never happen to me’ and ‘she’ll be right’ have no place on a farm. She’ll only be right once all workers and family members arrive home safely each night,’ Alicia said.
SafeWork NSW currently offers free advice and free farm visits to agricultural businesses with less than 50 workers, as well as rebates relating to improvements in quad bike safety (up to $2000), free quad bike training and $500 small business rebate for safety improvements relating to manual tasks, hazardous chemicals, communication and working form heights, just to name a few. For more information and to determine eligibility for rebates call 13 10 50 or visit www.safework.nsw.gov.au