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Injuries, fatalities remain high on NZ farms despite changes in other sectors


Thursday 8 October 2009 2:56pm

Barriers to improved safety include economic constraints, new study reveals.

The rate of serious injury and fatalities on New Zealand farms has remained high despite declines in other industrial sectors over the past two decades, a recently-released study reveals.

And it is not just the kiwi "she'll be right" attitude to blame, say researchers.

Long work hours, working alone, uncomfortable safety gear, time and economic constraints, and working with equipment unsuited for New Zealand terrain all contributed to the sobering statistics, says Dr Kirsten Lovelock of the University of Otago's Injury Prevention Research Unit.

"Many people think if you just educate people that the problem will go away," says Dr Lovelock. "But while training programmes help they are not enough on their own. In order to help reduce hazards, we need multi-faceted interventions - including looking at the design of farm equipment."

She pointed out that because New Zealand does not manufacture its own farm equipment, farmers rely on tractors and other equipment designed primarily in North America for wide open North American landscapes: "So what's fine for the Canterbury Plains may not be fine for the Wairarapa."

The aim of the $400,000 two-year study was to update information on attitudes, behaviours and practices in order to develop new policies and design more effective intervention strategies for those working in agriculture.

The study had unprecedented 'buy-in' from key industry stakeholders, including Federated Farmers, Rural Women NZ, ACC, the Department of Labour, Meat and Wool, FarmSafe™, Dairy Insight, MAF, and the Agriculture Health and Safety Council.

Statistics and research from Australasia, Western Europe and North America were reviewed to provide a comparison with the New Zealand experience. The study found that New Zealand farm injury and mortality rates were very similar to those elsewhere, as were the issues confronting farmers.

Telephone and face-to-face surveys were also conducted, reaching over 300 farm owners, farm workers, their families, recent ACC claimants, as well as industry representatives throughout New Zealand.

"Hearing damage is a significant issue for farmers. They're exposed to noise from machinery, firearms and hand-held machinery – and there is a reluctance to wear earplugs."

As such, hearing loss is one of NZ's most significant compensation costs, especially with an aging farm population, she noted.

Younger farmers were found to have had had more safety training than the older generation. However, people reported in the survey that while many had safety gear (ear plugs, helmets, gloves, respirators), they didn't use it. The reason: the equipment was uncomfortable to wear, the farmers were in "too much of a hurry," or in some reported cases, farmers were subject to social pressure not to don the protective gear.

The study also found that although ATVs were used every day, only two respondents said they ever wore a seat belt. The majority also left their keys in the ATV while unattended. Children under five were riding on farm vehicles as passengers, while young children (five-to-nine years) were operating ATVs and motorbikes, playing near machinery, and using firearms.

Ironically, despite low levels of safety compliance, "most of the farmers we spoke to were genuinely concerned about the disease risk and injury rate. They were not naïve or complacent, for example, about issues around working with chemicals or the dangers that both tractors and ATVs present"

So why do many farmers take the risks that they do?

Some of the legendary "she'll-be-right" attitude still persists, the study found, including an ingrained stoicism with regard to injury especially amongst male respondents. A "serious" injury was one that killed you, many believed, or left you unable to work again. In the words of one man, a head injury was "serious" if you "ended up a cabbage."

Only a third of those experiencing injury or loss of work time in the study made an ACC claim, suggesting the real economic burden of farm injury could be significantly greater than now estimated, the report states.

However, Dr Lovelock thinks it's "a bit unfair" to characterize farmers as resistant to change. Often there are certain economic constraints.

"To play up every ailment or injury and to take time off to recover is not an economically viable thing to do when you are on a small family farm or living on economically marginal properties."

Modern closed-in-cab tractors are also very expensive, she noted. Working alone was a factor, particularly among sheep farmers who, due to lower profitability, couldn't always afford to hire workers. Working very long hours and being fatigued also resulted in higher injury rates.

Dr Lovelock stressed the increasing diversity of farming communities in rural NZ.

"Rural New Zealand has changed a lot. You've got people with degrees managing farms. You have a younger generation coming up who are more likely to have participated in training programmes that include health and safety. You also have increasingly diverse workforces on the larger properties with migrant workers from both the Pacific and Europe working on farms.

"So that what's true for one farm owner may not be for another and may be different again for a farm worker or family member. Farms are also larger and there are an increasing number of farms that are not family farms but corporate entities employing large numbers of workers and encompassing large areas of land."

The survey also painted a different portrait of the role of farm women. Dr Lovelock said that it is often assumed that women need to be more involved in safety issues in order to bring pressure on their men to work safely. But many farm women are now working off the farm in town jobs, and are heavily involved in other community projects and may not have the time and energy to be looking out for their men or to take on being responsible for safety on the property.

"It also assumes that men can't be responsible for their own safety and need to be 'looked after'. But we found that women take risks as well."

For More Information

Dr Kirsten Lovelock
Injury Prevention Research Unit
Department of Preventive and Social Medicine
Dunedin School of Medicine
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 4168

Jo Galer
Senior Communications Officer
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8263
Mob 021 279 8263

Effective Occupational Health Interventions In Agriculture, Summary Report

Key Findings – Outcomes, Risk Factors and Exposures


  • For two-thirds of those injured it was over a week before they could resume normal farming duties; yet only a third made a claim to the ACC.
  • Most frequent injuries were: sprains, strains (predominantly to the back), cuts to hand, wrist/hand or multiple body sites, crush injuries to chest, ankle/foot, wrist/hand, shoulder/upper arm or multiple sites, burns to lower leg or to multiple sites.
  • Injuries occurred mainly in summer months (40 per 100), followed by spring (13 per 100). Majority occurred outside, on flat terrain and when conditions were fine and dry.
  • Of the seriously injured ACC sample, injuries were mainly sprains, strains, fractures, dislocations, crush injuries, loss of consciousness and, in one case, amputation.
  • Injuries primarily involved animals, vehicles and machinery.

Physiochemical Hazards

  • Just over 50 per cent of respondents indicated they frequently handled hazardous chemicals (mainly herbicides)
  • When working with chemicals, respondents generally protected their trunk and extremities from exposure, but use of masks, respirators and face protection was low.
  • Less than 8 per cent of respondents reported health affects as a result handling chemicals.
  • Noise – 14 per cent reported noise exposure where "noise was so loud you had to shout."
  • Vehicle vibration – was the most prevalent physical exposure (whole body vibration), with shock vibration more common with ATV use.
  • Dust – Exposure to dust from animals and plants was the most frequently reported dust exposure.


  • Respondents report high levels of exposure to two-wheeled motorcycles, ATVs, shearing equipment, tractors, implements pulled by tractors, chainsaws, firearms, workshop equipment and stock. Farmers are using ATVs more and motorbikes less than noted in previous research conducted in 1993/94.
  • Tractors – few farmers use seatbelts when driving on the farm. A high proportion of farmers left keys in the ignition when unattended. However, over the past 14 years, there appears to be a significant improvement in farm safety features: ROPS, safety belts, passenger seats, guarded PTOs and safety starters.
  • Farm Bikes – less than a third of the total respondents used helmets on motorbikes.
  • ATVs – few use helmets and only two respondents said they ever wore a seatbelt. The majority leave their keys in the ignition.


  • Under 5 year – are riding on farm vehicles as passengers (including ATVs), are exposed to animals and are accompanying adults while working on the farm.
  • 5 to 9 years – are operating ATVs and motorbikes, riding as passengers, playing near machinery, perform animal work, use firearms, have access to farm structures, and accompany adults on the property.


  • The majority of respondents had not received any training in the past six months (except for handling chemicals).
  • Just over 40 per cent had attended the FarmSafe™ Awareness Course since its inception in 2002.
  • Where there are safety training programmes, they tend to be delivered by various agencies in an ad hoc and uncoordinated basis.
  • There is no long term prevention strategy for injury and disease that specifically addresses the agricultural sector.

Safety Checks

  • Very few respondents had had a formal safety check on the farm in the past six months. The study also noted the "limited number of personnel available to enforce health and safety requirements" and that those inspectors also have responsibility for other sectors.

Barriers to Safety

  • Having to rush, and being tired or fatigued were the most prevalent barriers to safety reported.
  • Lack of suitable equipment.
  • Social pressure from neighbours, co-workers, or management.
  • Economic and time pressures subsume safety concerns on a significant proportion of farms.
  • Dominant stereotypes of farmers being 'rugged', 'independent', 'self-sufficient' were seen as "problematic" in that they could undermine effective health interventions in the sector.


  • Stoicism and fatalism towards serious injuries, "when your time's up, it's up."
  • Genuine concern about disease risk arising from exposure to chemicals (e.g. cancer).
  • Most farmers do not want to read about injury and disease statistics in their sector; behavioural change resulted more as a result of personal injury or 'near-miss' incident, or injury or death of family member or friend.
  • Machinery-related injuries or needing training to work their machines was considered embarrassing by many male farmers who prided themselves on being able to master machinery.
  • General resistance to the idea of health & safety enforcement or regulation (although one woman farmer said she was constantly having to reinforce wearing safety gear with her workers, and said it would help her to be a more responsible employer if there were state regulations).


  1. Need for an agreed-upon coordinated strategy based on research evidence.
  2. Any new interventions need to be piloted and tested in New Zealand field conditions to prove effectiveness before becoming part of a national strategy
  3. Interventions need to be targeted to specific exposure/hazard risks; targeted interventions have been proven more effective.
  4. Need more than educational approach; multifaceted interventions that include policy, workplace organisation, engineering design of farm equipment, and, where applicable, regulation, are recommended.
  5. Need to address specific barriers to safety. For example, dissemination of occupational health and safety information to farmers, workers and families needs to include more than just written material. Interventions need to consider economic constraints and perceptions of 'serious injury', and steps should be taken to identify high-risk farmers or those in poor health.
  6. Programmes are more successful if farming communities help design and implement them. Sustained follow-up also helps ensure intervention programmes work more effectively (support networks, follow-up contact, etc)
  7. Expand awareness, support and leadership of farm safety beyond farmers to the agricultural sector as a whole (include financial and insurance groups, commodity groups, contractors, farm workers and families).

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