Managing mental health a legal requirement

We know that our farmers are at risk of suffering from fatigue, stress and depression. 

Isolation, long hours and challenging environmental conditions (too wet, too dry, too hot or too cold) all contribute to a widely acknowledged problem that is not effectively managed on farms. 

Farm owners and managers are becoming increasingly aware of their health and safety obligations, and proactive about identifying and managing physical risks on farms. 

However, risks to mental health are often ignored. The problem with mental health issues, is that often they can be hard to identify until it is too late.  Mental health risks are not like other workplace risks.  You easily identify unguarded machinery, or some broken railing in the farm dairy.  Because, you can’t see mental health risks, they can be easy to ignore.

Farm owners and managers ignore risks to mental health at their own peril — the Health and Safety at Work Act’s definition of “health” includes both physical and mental health. 

This means that farm owners and managers have a duty, under the Health and Safety at Work Act, to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the mental health of their workers at work.

WorkSafe is prepared to prosecute health and safety breaches that relate to mental health. In 2005, the Department of Labour successfully prosecuted an employer for failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of an employee who was suffering work related stress which resulted in the employee taking medication for stress-related pains. 

A farm owner’s duty to ensure the physical and mental health of workers includes employees, contractors and certain volunteers. This means that a farm owner’s health and safety obligations extend to managing risks to their sharemilkers’ mental health, as well as their employees.

Ensuring the mental health of farm workers isn’t a job for farm owners and managers alone. Farm workers must also take reasonable care for their own health and safety.

There are also other duties as well.  All workplaces (including farms) must have practices in place that allow worker engagement and participation about safety in the workplace.  In the mental health context, that means ways to talk about mental health issues with your farmers.

The very thing that makes mental health so hard to tackle in the workplace, is the stigma that is associated with it.  It is getting better, but in farming workplaces especially, we still have that no.8 wire “she’ll be right” mentality.  Engagement with workers about mental health (talking about it) is one of the front line weapons that we have to break down that stigma.

Apart from talking, what does ensuring safety for mental health so far as reasonably practicable really mean?  In other words what can be done?  Talking about it is one step.  There are other actions that can been taken as well.  My colleague Jesse Lange will write about some of these next week.

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