Our Safer Farms ambassador Richard Loe caught up with Dairy NZ Chairperson Jim van der poel on how he runs his farm in the Waikato and what good health and safety practice means to him.

“When I was growing up in farming, the attitude tended to be, ‘let’s just get on and get stuff done,’ says DairyNZ Chairman Jim van der Poel.

“But what happened at Pike River has changed the way we look at workplace safety in New Zealand. And when you look at ACC’s statistics around the high number of workplace deaths and injuries on New Zealand farms, it’s clear things needed to change.”

Jim farms in the Waikato and also has interests in farming businesses in the South Island. He says identifying the risks on farms and taking practical steps to eliminate them is the easy part – changing those ‘let’s just get stuff done’ attitudes’ is harder.

“To identify the risks in our business, we got out on the farms and into the milking shed, where most of the action goes on and we looked at what we do on a daily basis, and wherever possible, we made physical changes to mitigate risks,” he says.

 “A number of actions came out of that. It included making sure we had safety covers on every belt and drawing up farm maps and marking up all the hazards – such as areas like gullies where you need to go on foot rather than on the bike.

“Because we work across a number of businesses, we got professionals in to help us with that, but driving around your land and marking up your risks on a map is something any farmer can do.”

The key to the more challenging task, of changing attitudes and culture, Jim firmly believes, is down to leading by example - and good communication.

“It has to be led by managers. You can’t just tell people, ‘this is the way we are going to do things now’ and leave it at that,” he says. “You have to walk the talk and keep on having those conversations.

“Whenever I’m on the farms, I have those conversations about health and safety. I ask people what they have been doing and how they are doing things and how are things being maintained.

“By talking about it, you reinforce those messages and keep health and safety front of mind. Every time we employ a new manager we provide them with training around that, to ensure they are on board with all our health and safety expectations.

“We have a number of different systems and staffing arrangements across the farms, from employing people directly to contract milking and equity partners, who employ people. At all the governance meetings, health and safety is a key topic on the agenda, ensuring they are focusing on having good systems, good maintenance programmes and good safety conversations.”

Those processes range from requiring people to wear helmets at all times when using bikes, to ensuring everyone is fully trained in the equipment they are using or the job they are doing.

“The safe use of tractors is vital for us,” says Jim. “Everyone who will be operating them must be supervised by an experienced person until they are fully competent. That doesn’t just include driving the tractor, it’s about hopping on and off safely, always turning the engine off before you get off and taking care to check the area is clear of people before you move the tractor.”

Making clear that health and safety is about people, not compliance, is vital, says Jim.

“If the management approach is that it is about compliance, then that will be the rest of the team’s approach and they may well cut corners once you are out of sight. It’s about making clear that it’s personal, it’s about them, that you want them to work safely and go home safely every day.

“You need to keep reinforcing those messages; that you don’t want them to put themselves at risk; that you always want them to take a few minutes to think about the safest way to do a job and the best tools for that job, even if it means the job taking longer.”

Jim believes the benefits to a farm business of lifting health and safety performance extend beyond the reduced risk of accidents and lost time injuries.

“It’s good business practice and it’s about how others view your business. If you visit a farm and it’s untidy and stuff is broken and run down, it won’t look like an efficient business. The same goes for health and safety, it’s one of the processes a well-run farm has in place.

“And it makes a real difference in recruiting and retaining good staff. Smart people have choices and they will have a higher level of awareness around health and safety. So effective health and safety processes and effective health and safety in action are going to help you get a better quality of person working on your farm.”