Farming is not always an easy life. The work is hard and physical, the hours are long and you’re exposed to the extremes of the weather – not to mention international commodity prices. You might even say that farming comes with more than its fair share of risks.

Some of those risks are to life and limb, and it is those risks that the new Health and Safety at Work Act is focused on.

At its heart the new law is all about identifying work risks and creating a culture of risk management. The requirement to manage risks at work is not new – there’s long been a legal duty to keep people safe at work. But with the new law coming into force on 4 April there has never been a better time to take stock of your approach to keeping everyone on farm safe and healthy.

So what do farmers need to know about the new law? Well, first up let’s dispel a couple of myths.

To be clear, the new law does not require the elimination of all risks at any cost. That’s not realistic and not what WorkSafe New Zealand expects. And it doesn’t have to mean a whole lot more paperwork. Health and safety is about identifying and managing risks – not a folder full of documents gathering dust.

Who is responsible for health and safety?

The short answer is everyone. From farmers, to share-milkers, to seasonal workers - everyone has a role to play in keeping farms safe. But obviously a seasonal worker doesn’t have the same ability to influence how a job is undertaken, so they have different levels of responsibility.

The primary duty of care falls to what the law calls the Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (or PCBU). The PCBU will almost always be a business, and in the agriculture sector that will include farmers. That means as a farmer you’re responsible for taking the lead on keeping people safe and healthy on your farm.

It’s not just one-way traffic though - workers also need to take responsibility themselves for acting in a safe and healthy way. This means using the right gear (and reminding a mate who isn’t), following proper health and safety processes and taking five to plan how to do a task safely when a situation changes.

Manage your risks

Businesses need to do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to eliminate or manage health and safety risks. That means as a farmer you need to identify risks on your farm and do what is sensible and proportionate to either eliminate or minimise them.

That will include the risks associated with the use of machinery, vehicles, agri-chemicals and the challenges of working safely around animals – all things that every farmer will be familiar with already. You are only responsible for what you can reasonably influence and control.

WorkSafe is producing new guidance material to help businesses and workers come to grips with the new law and associated regulations – and to help them know what good health and safety practice looks like. This will include everything from formal Approved Codes of Practice, to good practice guides down to the more accessible fact sheets, case studies and interactive tools on the WorkSafe website.

When is a farm a workplace?

You should manage work-related risks wherever you’re working. But the law is quite clear; the farmhouse is not a workplace. So, what about the rest of the farm?

The new law clears up what is and what isn’t a workplace on a farm.  As a farmer, you have a duty to manage workplace risks in the following areas:

• Farm buildings and immediate surrounding areas (whether or not work is going on at the time)
• Other parts of the farm, where work is being carried out.

In those areas you’re responsible for the health and safety of your workers and others, and for managing the risks that you can reasonably control.

What about visitors on farms?

All kinds of people come and go on farms all the time. Employees, contractors, vets, and recreational visitors, such as hunters and trampers, can be on your land at any given time. So what are your duties when it comes to their health and safety?

The approach is just the same for visitors venturing into farm buildings and immediate surrounding areas, and areas on the farm where work is being carried out. In these cases you owe a duty to the visitors, just as you do to your workers.

But, if you couldn’t be expected to know that someone is going to be on your farm, it’s just not reasonable to expect that you have the same level of care for their safety. Also, if someone is on you farm for an unlawful purpose you can’t be held responsible if there is an incident. 

Where a visitor like a hunter or line worker crosses an area of a farm not being used for work purposes, and not close to the buildings on the farm, then the farmer shouldn’t need to take any action in relation to that person. 

One exception would be if some work had recently been carried out creating a risk even though no-one was still working there, e.g. recent spraying of agri-chemicals that may still be in the air. In these situations you need to think about how to reasonably manage this for visitors and others.

Am I responsible for contractors?

The new law is designed to encourage cooperation, communication and collaboration. So where the work of two or more businesses overlap, they must work together to keep everyone safe. Talking to each other and sharing information is vital.

You need to make sure any contractors understand the risks they bring to your farm (which they should warn you about) and be satisfied that they are managing these risks appropriately (which they should tell you about). If they don’t tell you, ask.

You’re not expected to be an expert in their area, but if you feel their work is being conducted unsafely you should stop it until you are satisfied it’s safe. You should also warn your contractors about any risks your work poses to them while at work, when you know or should know they are coming onto your farm.

Working together

The Health and Safety at Work Act also introduces a requirement on all businesses to engage with their workers on health and safety matters. It doesn’t set in stone what form that engagement must take. That will vary from industry to industry and business to business. But the law is clear – if it relates to health and safety then there needs to be meaningful discussion with workers.

As well as asking workers for feedback on specific questions, all businesses need to have clear, well known ways for workers to raise suggestions or issues on a day-to-day basis.  It doesn’t have to be complicated – a morning chat covering off the working day ahead and any risks involved is a great place to start.

Any business or farm can choose to have Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) or a Health and Safety Committee (HSC), which would create a clear mechanism for workers to raise any issues. If your farm employs 20 or more workers you must arrange an HSR election if requested by a worker.  And if an HSR or five or more workers ask for a Health and Safety Committee (HSC) then business (again, with 20 or more workers) must formally consider that request. Smaller farms are not covered by these requirements as they do not fall into the high risk category.

The trick is to make sure health and safety is integrated into your farm at every level. Keeping an eye out for one another, should be part of everyone’s daily routine. If it’s not already then now is the time to take action. Not only will you and your workers be safer and healthier, so will your farming business.

To find out more about the Health and Safety at Work Act, including the new duties for company officers such as Directors and Chief Executives, visit the WorkSafe New Zealand website at worksafe.govt.nz/hswa