Katie Milne talks about how her husband's near fatal incident shaped their health and safety journey.

“Our health and safety journey has been an interesting one,” says Federated Farmers President Katie Milne.

Back in 1987, Katie’s husband Ian Whitmore was dragged into a power take off (PTO) shaft – escaping with his life only because the tractor stalled.

“Ian is one of very few people to have survived such an accident,” says Katie. “A piece of machinery had been lent out to someone and came back without the PTO cover. Ian needed to use it urgently so went ahead.  If the tractor hadn’t stalled, he wouldn’t be here today. He got wrapped around it; it tore off his clothing – he was left in the paddock wearing literally only his gumboots and the cuffs of his jersey.”

Early in her working career. Katie also spent some time as a meat inspector at a processing plant. Having to drive workers to hospital for treatment for “some pretty nasty wounds,” further reinforced her awareness about the value of good health and safety.

So, when she and Ian bought their 100 hectare Lake Brunner dairy farm from Ian’s family in 1992, identifying and managing their risks was already a strong priority.

“Growing up, I don’t remember there being much discussion around health and safety,” says Katie. “I think there were some ACC pamphlets and I know Young Farmers did some awareness-raising around the risks of PTO shafts but mostly the approach was ‘use your common sense.’

“However, our own experiences had really struck home. When we bought the farm, we were aware that a lot of the time we were working alone – and what would happen if one of us had an accident?  I joined our local volunteer fire service, both to contribute to the community but also to learn about health and safety and first aid. It’s a very good grounding because recognising and managing risks is really drilled into you – and the importance of never becoming complacent about it.”

Initially, Katie and Ian’s on-farm focus was on the critical risks – ensuring safety covers on machinery, yard design and procedures around safe cattle handling and a robust maintenance programme.

However, over time, and with one full-time employee on board, their approach has developed to take into account the ever-changing risks on farm, big and small – with good communication one of the most useful tools in the H&S toolbox.

“It is an evolution,” says Katie. “You can identify and manage the obvious risks, like the PTO shafts and large animals. But it’s also about being aware of the ongoing and smaller things – like slip and trip hazards.

“You need to make conversations about safety a part of what you do every day. For instance, you might have plenty of bike helmets, and if helmets are left on farm bikes, then people will use them.  but if someone hasn’t left one there, people might not bother. So it’s about reminding them: ‘Have you left the helmet on the bike?’ or ‘You need to go and pick up a helmet,’ and eventually always wearing a helmet just becomes part of your farm culture.”

Katie says encouraging everyone on farm to be proactive about identifying risk and flagging them up, is also important.

“You might notice the bungee on a gate is getting a bit worn. That is a risk. If you don’t do anything about it and see it every day and don’t get round to fixing it, then complacency sets in – but it will eventually become a problem.

“Our approach is to flag it up and fix it now – that manages the risk of a problem like that escalating to the point where the bungee breaks and the stock get out and you have a much bigger safety hazard.”

Differences in personality, age and ability are also taken into account.

“No matter how good your induction process, some people will always be more observant about health and safety issues than others or might be better at different aspects.

“Ian is very good at keeping on top of machinery maintenance and ensuring servicing is up to date. I’m better at getting onto those little tasks and ensuring the processes are in place. That said, we had a fairly major construction project recently. I was away when it started and when I got back I asked Ian ‘Did you do a health and safety induction?’ and the construction foreman chipped in to say ‘yes’ and it had been a thorough one.

“You also need to take different physical abilities into account.  My parents are experienced farmers and they help us out sometimes but I’m aware they are older than us and not as agile, so we plan ahead, to manage the jobs around that.”

Katie says none of the steps they have taken are arduous or involve a lot of paperwork.

“The key is to keep it simple,” she says. “The paperwork only needs to be very basic. You can download any resources or templates you need, from risk registers to vehicle maintenance records from – WorkSafe, DairyNZ, Federated Farmers or Beef + Lamb New Zealand websites.

“We tend to use our farm diary for a lot of our record keeping – such as logging when a vehicle has been serviced and when the next service is due. Our land is fairly flat but we have some crossings. We have an aerial map of the farm, with stuff people need to know about marked on it and a flip chart with ‘need to know’ information. That’s useful if you have contractors coming in.

“Tragically, we do have friends with farms who have had to go to people’s home and knock on the door to tell them there has been an accident on farm and their loved one is never coming home. That is a place you never ever want to be.”