Keeping yourself safe on farms

Too many New Zealand farmers die at work.  Between 1 January 2016 and 13 October 2016, farmers died operating machinery, in accidents involving vehicles, and during controlled farm burn off.

During that period, Worksafe received 15 reports of fatal work-related incidents related to agriculture. That represents more fatalities than any other industry and means, on average, a death every three weeks. Our farmers have been dying at work at roughly that rate since 2011.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 came into force on 4 April 2016. Is there any reason to think that the law will make work safer for farmers?  Fortunately, yes.

Firstly, the new law simplifies the categories of workers to whom farm owners owe health and safety duties.

Under the old law, a farm owner had separate duties for their employees and contractors (such as sharemilkers) and other people in the vicinity of the farm. In practice, this often meant that farm owners would focus their attention towards their employees’ health and safety, and contractors were left to manage their own health and safety.

The new law doesn’t distinguish between employees and contractors and creates a simplified duty owed to all workers (and with some exceptions for farmers) other non-workers on the farm. This means that a farm owner owes the same health and safety duties to a sharemilker (who is a contractor) or a fertiliser truck operator as they do to any employee.   

Secondly, it’s now easier to hold farm officers (such as directors and, on some farms, the senior farm managers) responsible for health and safety on the farm.

Under the old law, farm officers were only personally liable for health and safety breaches if they actively participated in the breach. It was difficult to prove this and consequently easy for directors/senior managers to avoid consequences for a serious farm accident.  

Now, farm officers and, on some farms, farm managers have a due diligence duty to ensure that their business meets its health and safety obligations.  

Thirdly, the maximum penalties for beaches of health and safety law have significantly increased which will make everyone sit up and take notice. The maximum fine for an organisation that recklessly breaches a health and safety duty is now $3 million. The maximum penalty for an officer (such as a farm owner) who recklessly breaches a health and safety duty is now 5 years’ imprisonment or a $600,000 fine. 

Finally, there are new personal grievances that employees can take when their employer dismisses them, or disadvantages them in any way as a result of a health and safety reason (for example, refusing to work that is likely to cause serious harm, or requesting elections for a health and safety representation), then that employee can raise a personal grievance.

The new law famously did not include some farming or agriculture industries as high risk. Despite that, there are reasons to expect that work will become safer for those who work on farms. 

The content of this document is necessarily general and readers should seek specific advice on particular matters and not rely solely on this document. 

If you would like more information on any of the topics in this document, please contact your usual Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen adviser. 

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Sean Maskill