A fast-growing Taranaki-based business is helping farmers all over the country get to grips with health and safety.
New health and safety legislation that came into force in April has been a hot topic for farmers all over New Zealand, some being spooked by scare stories about how the first major law reforms in 20 years might affect their day to day operations. But thousands have put their minds at rest by seeking help from the experts employed by specialised health and safety firm OnFarmSafety New Zealand (OFSNZ).
Launched by Taranaki farmers Bronwyn and Phil Muir just three years ago, the company has quickly grown into a nationwide business, with a dozen consultants offering audits, advice, support and education. With gumboots at the ready, they visit farms all over the country to meet farmers and help them understand their legal requirements and make health and safety plans to meet these and their farm-business needs.
The business has its roots in Bronwyn Muir’s personal interest in addressing farm accident statistics through various industry organisations and in the worries she heard being expressed by her fellow farmers.
“I was having discussions with a lot of business owners around their concerns and also their confusion about how to get good, practical health and safety compliance in place,” she says.
She is a life-long farmer herself, who trained at Flock House then working in shepherding and shearing before becoming a dairy farmer in Taranaki, where she and her husband Phil have built their farm into a 700-cow operation. Ahead of setting up OFSNZ, she backed up her interest in the field with an international qualification in health and safety. “I felt I could apply my skill to pretty much any land-based operation and be of support and service to the farm owners,” she says.
“I’m very focused on being able to apply health and safety in a very practical and workable way.” She had seen farmers being offered only generic assistance programmes with little or no on-farm support. “You’d pretty much just buy something off the shelf and then farm operators would have to try and interpret it to fit their needs.”
Farmers were also confused at the different messages they received. “There was then and there still is now a lot of misinformation about what farmers should be doing.”
OFSNZ’s rapid growth is testament to the demand for clarity and assistance. “It was very timely,” reflects Muir. “It surprised us as we got going how much farmers value the fact that we get on farm with them, take time to listen, and then provide support and education to the whole farm team.” Scaremongering doesn’t work, Muir says.
“We’ve really focused on getting alongside our clients and educating them into a space where they are comfortable to have the conversation with an assessor, investigator or contractor.”
Often farmers mistakenly think they need to put together “screeds” of health and safety information. OFSNZ has a major focus on identifying what businesses already have in place, often in existing financial and contractual documents. It
has developed an audit that identifies compliance gaps. Its consultants then create an action plan with the farmer to “fill in the gaps”. They help farms pull together existing documentation, such as employment agreements, lease agreements, share milking contracts, machinery manuals, contractors’ industry standards and Workplace NZ best-practice guidelines.
Implementation can utilise an online safety system, stick to the traditional paper or strike a balance between the two. Consultants sit down with farm teams to put together rules to suit their operations, Muir says. “If we’re going to write some rules, let’s start with the people and from the existing base of the business’s founding documents and then write them together so nobody can say they didn’t know.”
Farm businesses need to understand their responsibilities as employers, even if they have people working for them on just a very occasional and part-time basis. “Often the relief staff are as big a liability as anything because they still have
access to all the working components of that farm business but are often not inducted, supervised or trained the same as permanent staff,” Muir says.
And she says the governors of farm businesses need to engage on health and safety, even if there are layers of consultants and managers between them and day-to-day operations. “The biggest gap we see is in the conversation between governance and management.”
Consultants, too, can have significant management influence and need to understand their potential liability, she says. OFSNZ helps farm businesses unpick those lines of responsibility. At an operational level, Muir identifies the management of hazardous substances as a common health and safety weakness. “We still don’t do that area particularly well, although we are getting a lot better.” Personal protective equipment – including bike helmets – is another area often in need of attention. And with focus having fallen on safety practices in forestry, the felling of trees has become another health and safety compliance issue for many farmers, says Muir. “Their potential responsibility and liability with contractor management raises many questions.”
OFSNZ’s consultants, based throughout New Zealand and all experienced farmers themselves, make repeat visits, ensuring that health and safety systems are working, even when farmers get busy with other priorities. “We call it our right to nag,” says Muir. “Most farmers have actually said, ‘yeah, that’s what I need, somebody to keep me honest and on-to-it.’” She says the company appreciates how health and safety demands can be a burden, particularly in tough economic or busy times. “We understand the pressures, especially in years like this. But we want – as the legislation now requires – health and safety to be a working part of the everyday farm practices and processes, not tacked-on ‘do it when you have time’. Every workplace must be able to provide evidence that they are regularly addressing and making every attempt to manage a healthy and safe working environment.”
She says OFSNZ is recognised as an industry leader, is a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise Business Capability Development Voucher Provider and has partnered with national organisations such as Fonterra Farm Source.
BNZ has backed the Muirs both in the expansion of their farming business and in creating OFSNZ. The couple have had a long involvement with Marcus McLeod, BNZ Managing Partner. “We’ve stayed with Marcus and his team because they understand how we think,” says Muir. “We tend to push the ideas barrow out a lot.”
OFSNZ’s rapid growth has brought its own challenges. “But [BNZ] are very good at getting alongside us and working through the growing pains. They are more than just our bank, they are key stakeholders in our business”
Unlike most other businesses, farms are often homes and playgrounds for farmers and their families, adding another element to the health and safety picture. OnFarmSafety New Zealand’s Bronwyn Muir says it’s “a massive area of conversation” for farm businesses.
Farming can offer an extremely family-friendly lifestyle, with recreational opportunities and flexibility in the working day. “That’s one of the reasons people are making a career in our rural industry. We don’t want to lose that,” she says.
But farm businesses have to think strategically about putting boundaries between personal home space and the workplace, she says. If a worker is taking a farm bike back to their dwelling, for example, there might need to be safety rules in place, such as where it is parked, “so that the two year-old doesn’t wander out and climb on the bike and potentially start it up”.
Good practices will also influence the next generation. “Not only is it where your families are living and playing, potentially these little guys and girls following you around are learning to become farmers. They are our succession plan” she says.
She and her husband Phil have brought up three children of their own on their Eltham, dairy farm and know well how family life often intersects with farm operations. “It was really important for us that they learned to love agriculture, and they have.”
Farm workers, too, often come with a family of their own “little hazards”. Systems must account for the children on a farm, Muir says. They need to be encouraged to learn, to love the industry, but to apply considered risk measures that keep them safe. “I can remember being encouraged to take many risks as a kid, I made mistakes, some of them hurt a bit, and subsequently I developed common-sense skills and a passion for the industry. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if that hadn’t happened. It’s nothing new. Its stuff we’ve done in our industry forever and ensures our next generation of farmers are in training – in a healthy safe environment.”