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Mining’s safety lessons for ag 12 May 2016

When asked if mining or agriculture is more dangerous, ex-coal miner and now cattle producer Matt Bennetto’s answer is ‘agriculture’.

He says the industry could learn some valuable lessons about Work Health and Safety (WHS) from the resources sector, having experienced first-hand the mining sector’s strict safety regulations in action.

Mr Bennetto spent seven years working underground in coal mining and hard rock mining in tunnel construction, before returning full-time to his family’s Charters Towers cattle property, Virginia Park, two years ago.

During his time working underground, Mr Bennetto was a health and safety representative and an underground operations trainer for a number of years.

Comparing the approach to risk management in mining with agriculture, he believes the agriculture sector is still playing catch up when it comes to workplace health and safety.

“When I went underground coal mining after working in underground hard rock mining, I thought that coal mining would be the most dangerous industry to work in,” Mr Bennetto said.

“And yet, because the industry mitigates most of the dangers I actually think coal mining ends up a safer environment than the everyday operations on a cattle station.

“Some of the on-farm dangers are short-term, immediate ones like falling off a horse or cutting yourself on barbed wire, while others are long-term risks like the impacts of sun exposure.”

Mr Bennetto believes if agriculture could draw from the mining industry’s approach to greater task awareness, it could save lives and prevent injuries.

New research exploring what’s stopping primary producers from improving their safety practices has found almost half of all deaths on farms could be prevented, simply by implementing solutions we already know about.

Funded by the Primary Industries Health and Safety Partnership (PIHSP) and led by Richard Franklin of James Cook University, the study found the major barriers to implementing improved safety practices included perceived cost, time and inconvenience to implement changes.

PIHSP is funded by the Cotton, Grains and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporations, as well as the Australian Meat Processor Corporation and Meat & Livestock Australia, and aims to promote best practise WHS practices and improve the health and safety of workers and their families in farming and fishing industries across Australia.

When it comes to engaging producers in farm safety, Mr Bennetto believes taking an educational and training approach is more appealing to producers than a bureaucratic approach. 

“The mining industry has created all sorts of actions and documentation to create task awareness,” Mr Bennetto said.

“I think lack of task awareness on-farm happens for a variety of reasons. One is lack of experience in the job or task that people are doing, so they’re not aware of the hazards, and another is that people become so familiar with a task that they become complacent and stop looking out for hazards.”

Besides running their cattle operation, Matt and his wife Sonia, along with his parents, Rob and Sue, host agricultural traineeship programs run by Northern Skills Alliance (NSA) on Virginia Park, as well as school groups.

The training blocks cover all facets of agriculture including cattle work, horse riding, motorbike skills, mechanical servicing and welding.

Mr Bennetto believes there are many small steps producers can take that would ultimately make a big difference to risk management. 

“When I was working in mining, it was really drummed into me the importance of little things like ear protection, eye protection, and dust protection,” Mr Bennetto said.

“Ear protection is a big one for me - I generally always have a set of ear plugs on me these days. What a lot of people don’t realise is that your hearing only gets worse. Any damage you do, like firing a gun without ear plugs, that’s damage that can’t be undone.

“The health hazards associated with working in dust is one area that hasn’t been examined much in this industry but is something we need to be mindful of. We used to be only too happy to work in the cattle yards in dust you couldn’t see through, but these days we’ll get the sprinklers going to damp it down. 

“Besides the size of dust particles, there are other factors like residual chemicals in the soils that need to be considered, especially because a lot of cattle yards are built around older cattle yards that might have had dips at one point.”

Addressing rider attitudes when it comes to motorbike and quad safety is another area Mr Bennetto is passionate about.

“It’s not the motorbike that’s the problem; it’s how you ride it. It’s when riders start testing and pushing beyond what they know, or not paying attention, that accidents start happening.

“We spend too much time trying to change the symptom, not the actual problem, which is rider attitude.”

For more information about PIHSP, visit www.rirdc.gov.au/PIHSP