Investing in safe thinking cuts ACC wages bill, injury toll

Australian Country Choice farm safety strategy pays dividends

Safe Hands
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One of Queensland's biggest rural enterprises has reaped a payoff worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because of workplace safety initiatives.

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Spending time and effort thinking about, and building, a safe farm business workplace culture really does pay.

For one of Queensland's biggest rural enterprises the payoff has been worth literally hundreds of thousands of dollars - and a dramatic fall in workplace injuries.

Back in 2000, cattle producer and meat processor, Australian Country Choice, was paying the second highest workers compensation premiums in the state's red meat industry.

Today it has the lowest.

It became pretty apparent 20 years ago that an investment in building a safety culture, and safer infrastructure had to happen - David Foote, Australian Country Choice

Any farm and factory injuries on ACC's books translated directly to higher premiums for the company's insurance coverage, which 18 years ago represented a double digit percentage of its total payroll bill.

Today the same insurance coverage is a low single digit proportion of company wages.

"It became pretty apparent 20 years ago that an investment in building a safety culture, and safer infrastructure had to happen," said managing director, David Foote.

The incentive to think actively about workplace safety was more than just cheaper insurance premiums.

"For a start, you don't employ people expecting them to get hurt," he said.

The practicalities of running a business which spans 34 beef properties, including three feedlots, plus an abattoir and a secondary stage meat trimming and packing plant were also under pressure - quite by accident.

"If injuries happen, you're suddenly a man down at a feedlot or in the meatworks," he said.

David Foote

David Foote

"You have to find somebody to do their job - skills which are not easily obtained at short notice.

"We just don't have those backup skills sitting around waiting to fill a gap, particularly in remote regional areas.

"Any lost time caused by somebody's absence from work creates problems that flow through the business."

To minimise those problems ACC began a company-wide approach to identifying workplace risks and accident trouble spots, evolving a workplace culture which sought to manage safety problems, if not prevent them entirely.

Culture change rewards

Staff reaped a financial reward, too, sharing in the year-on-year savings made on insurance premium costs.

Subsequently, habits such as wearing helmets on horses and ag bikes, and always buckling up seat belts when in company vehicles - even while driving through a paddock - are now part of working life on ACC properties.

Quad bikes were replaced with side-by-side runabouts, and truckies loading cattle now use walkways beside the loading ramp, instead of climbing up their trucks.

Raised walkways beside the loading pens ensure staff don't need to climb onto trucks or into the loading race at the Brindley Park feedlot at Roma.

Raised walkways beside the loading pens ensure staff don't need to climb onto trucks or into the loading race at the Brindley Park feedlot at Roma.

Raised walkways beside the loading pens ensure staff don't need to climb onto trucks or into the loading race at the Brindley Park feedlot at Roma.

ACC's 2.4 million hectare cattle portfolio extends from Mt Isa in the north west to the Central Queensland coast and the state's south east, employing about 300 of the company's 1400 staff.

Mr Foote said injury issues were still declining, but the agriculture division was the focus of recently renewed improvement efforts - in particular situations involving people and horses.

ACC staff on horseback with modified helmet-style head wear.

ACC staff on horseback with modified helmet-style head wear.

"We haven't had serious problems in terms of horses and riders, but when you're on horseback dealing with cattle you've got a potentially unpredictable beast and a somewhat more predictable horse together in situations where difficulties are always possible," he said.

Train yourself to think

Time spent on extensive induction level training for staff was particularly important, and possibly the farm sector's greatest weakness, according the Mr Foote.

He noted how primary producers spent countless hours training working dogs and horses, yet often paid surprisingly little attention training themselves, or their workers, to think proactively about better workplace safety habits.

It was a discipline difficult to master in the best of workplaces, but it was critical to be actively considering risks, and doing a job safely rather than just quickly.

"On the farm there's generally a fast way to do something, and then there's a safe way," he said.

Because nobody actually expects to get hurt, you tend not to think about what could be a risk - David Foote

"I think people appreciate the value in workplace safety training, but it's not always easy to maintain that discipline in the farm environment when there are so many varied work situations and factors to deal with."

Agricultural work's unpredictability, combined with limited numbers of people available to do tasks quickly, often meant better safety strategies were a secondary consideration.

"Because nobody actually expects to get hurt, you tend not to think about what could be a risk," he said.

Don't walk past problems

"But if you keep walking past a potential risk, or any situation which probably could be improved, you're basically accepting it as okay.

"And, you are sending that same message to others, like your workers or family members."

We wouldn't be successful if we didn't pay attention to the safety of our workers and those coming on our properties - David Foote

Unfortunately, the limited manpower available on family farms invariably made safety training or just thinking differently quite difficult - even when neighbours may be adopting new strategies.

"In fact, some probably feel we can afford to spend money and time on safety because we're a successful business with lots of staff, rather than realising we wouldn't be successful if we didn't pay attention to the safety of our workers and those coming on our properties," Mr Foot said.

"Quite apart from the hundreds of thousands of dollars in reduced business costs we've achieved, we are rewarded by having people at work doing their job well."

He readily conceded, however, ACC was not infallible.

Injuries still occurred, including a "tragic incident" five years ago where a worker's arm was caught in an auger.

"A whole series of different circumstances can lead to a serious mistake if all parties don't do their job with a view to everybody's safety."

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