National Farm Safety Week
HAYLEY DAWSON INTERVIEWS ALEX THOMAS
National Farm Safety Week, is coordinated annually in July to raise awareness of the importance of farm safety across Australia. The week provides an opportunity for Farmsafe Australia to address farm safety issues that have a national focus. There is no-one better placed to speak about this topic than Alex Thomas, Founder and Director of a business focused on people, safety and sustainability. Alex is an authority in the space, and a truly inspirational rural woman with over 13 years’ experience helping businesses, “re-calibrate the value proposition of work health and safety from ‘box-ticking’ to empowering people, reducing risk and ultimately preventing people from getting hurt.” Her invaluable contribution to work health and safety in rural industries is widely recognised and she’s been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award (South Australia). Alex has also been formally endorsed by the Executive Director of Safe Work South Australia for her approach to assisting industry and her passion for her work is genuinely contagious.
H: Alex, thank you for taking the time to generously share your thoughts with Rural Room. Can you please tell me a little about yourself?
A: I’m a pastoralist’s daughter, an eternal empath and a recovering perfectionist. I love people, I’m a fierce advocate for all things agriculture and I’m infatuated with improvement. I’m a part-time carer for my disabled father and I’m incredibly passionate about empowering rural women and preserving the health and safety of those in rural industries. In the fifteen years since having left the Station I was raised on, I’ve lived in fifteen different houses, in three different states and in seven different towns. Boarding school taught me to value the best of both worlds, but as the saying goes, ‘you can take the girl out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the girl!’
H: What is your driving force behind your passion about agricultural safety?
A: Watching my Dad’s health deteriorate absolutely breaks my heart. I’m terrified of the day he’ll no longer be here, but I’m forever thankful for each and every day that he is. If I can influence just one person to avoid taking a short-cut, to slow down, or to make a safer, healthier choice – then my mission is complete.
H: Can you please explain what #PlantASeedForSafety is about?
A: Virtually everyone knows someone who's been hurt at work in rural industries.
From 2003 to 2016, the *Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries accounted for 23% of all work-related fatalities, 93% of which were men. Conversely, rural women; the un-sung heroes of rural industries, are well-known for their aversion to risk. They bring a fresh perspective to environments who may be notorious for having ‘done it this way for years’, and exhibit innate concern for the health, safety and wellbeing of their male counterparts and the rural community at large.
The current paradigm in rural industries suggests that when people think of ‘compliance’ with work health and safety legislation, they think of penalties, policies and procedures. Box-ticking, dust collecting, perceived as costly and convoluted and yet we forget that the intent of compliance, is simply, ‘just don’t kill someone.’
As key influencers in their businesses, their communities and their home life, the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign seeks to help raise the voices of rural women, to harness their innate care factor and to increase their confidence in their ability to influence change. To turn up the volume on what’s working well within rural industries and to dispel the myth that ‘to have safety paperwork’ is ‘to have safer outcomes’. To inspire rural men to make safer choices, and ultimately to reduce the number of people hurt at work in rural industries. In my view, paperwork doesn’t save lives, but rural women who are prepared to #PlantASeedForSafety do.
H: How did #PlantASeedForSafety come to life?
A: The flow on effect of drought, Q Fever, Ross River, diabetes, divorce, heart failure and kidney failure has had a profound and irreparable impact not only on my Dad’s health, but on our family and our livelihood; and the sense of displacement after selling the Station meant that we all had to reinvent ourselves. If we’d continued on the Station, I would have been the sixth generation on the land, and a short stint as a station hand immediately post boarding school didn’t even come close to fulfilling the experience I had always imagined for myself. So, I followed my Dad to the mining industry. I didn’t want to go back to Adelaide for University so I went to Olympic Dam and I fell into work health and safety, with a long-term vision to eventually give back to the industry that’s given so much to me. The serendipitous link between my career as a work health and safety professional and having cared for Dad since I was around 15 years old has catalysed my life’s work to prevent people from getting hurt in rural industries. The #PlantASeedForSafety campaign has provided Dad and I with a new connection with rural industries and has tasked us with a greater sense of purpose for all that our family - and many others - have endured.
H: Why do you think it is so important to focus on agricultural safety?
A: Throughout my personal and professional life, I’ve witnessed an inordinate number of rural men work themselves into the ground. I’m tired of hearing rural men say they’d ‘rather stick a pen in their eye than go and see the quack’, and I’m tired of hearing about the number of work-related fatalities in rural industries, the number of suicides and the number of rural women having to hold up the fort because it’s sometimes considered more ‘masculine’ to be ‘tough as nails’ than it is to slow down, to eat well and think twice about taking a short cut. I don’t want our industry’s safety performance to be defined by negative statistics, and I don’t want to see any more families suffer at the hands of a work-related incident. I want us to tell our own narrative about what it is that we do to keep ourselves safe and healthy, and I want that to be amplified. Rural industries have a responsibility to feed the world, and the health and safety of our workforce is a vehicle to our success.
H: How long have you been running #PlantASeedForSafety?
A: The #PlantASeedForSafety campaign commenced in February 2018, shortly prior to winning the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award. Irrespective of whether I won the Award or not, the application process bolstered my aspiration for the campaign, and I remember thinking “bugger it, this feels good! I’m doing it!
H: Can you please tell me a little bit more about the stories section on your website?
A: When it comes to work health and safety, the media often loves to sensationalise when things go wrong; but seldom sheds a light on when things go right. I believe that the untold story about work health and safety in rural industries is in that of rural women. Rural women play a pivotal role not only within their businesses and their homes, but in the prosperity of rural and regional communities at large. Sharing their stories is my way of celebrating their enormous contribution, empowering them to speak up and at the same time sharing practical ways of improving work health and safety.
H: Why are these stories focused on women?
A: Based on a lifetime of watching, revering and learning from rural women (and as highlighted in my recent blog for the Invisible Farmer Project), I think rural women have a unique and necessary value proposition in the improvement of work health and safety in rural industries.
In my experience, the clear advantages rural women have in helping to lower these statistics include the following:
• Rural women are often – literally – the closest other person to the work being done, and therefore are in the best position to initiate a conversation about work health and safety.
• Rural women know their businesses, their partners and the workplace better than anyone else does, and are informed (or if not, are in a fabulous position to be informed!) on what could be improved, and how.
• Rural women are often the ‘new kid on the block’ in family businesses; offering a fresh set of eyes and some much-needed diversity, particularly to those who have been owned and operated by generations of men before them (and have perhaps been ‘doing it this way for years’).
• Rural women often bring experience and knowledge from other industries and workplaces (that perhaps haven’t been ‘doing it this way for years’).
• Rural women are instinctively more risk averse and are therefore more inclined to highlight the dangers and seek to do things in a safer way.
• Rural women are at times (not always!) less able to do physically demanding work, and therefore are more likely to suggest an alternative (safer, less physically demanding) method.
• Rural women are innate carers and in my experience, are more often inclined to consider work health and safety.
• Rural women are often vulnerable to being ‘left carrying the load’ should their partner be seriously injured or killed at work, which incentivises their interest in work health and safety.
• Rural women are often responsible for most of the administrative functions in a family business – which is not to suggest that work health and safety in its most effective form is administrative – but that rural women are more likely to have contemplated the notion of improving work health and safety (even if it is in the traditional form of policy, procedures and paperwork).
• Rural women are connected to the communities around them. They listen to what their neighbours are doing, the grower group’s position on work health and safety and how ‘Trevor shouldn’t be reaping in the heat’. They’re ‘in the know’ and they’re fabulous communicators, and therefore in a great position to start a conversation about work health and safety.
• Rural women are resilient, brave and intuitive. They wear many hats and are the cornerstones of rural communities … they’re just amazing.
H: What are your three tips to make a positive change to improving safety?
A: 1. Understand your power to influence. You are the expert on your partner, your business, your community and your industry. Change is already happening. Be curious, connected and confident in your role to lead change.
2. Focus on the big stuff! Don’t waste your time and money on creating mountains of paperwork that doesn’t necessarily add any value. You, your partner and/or your workers already know when something ‘doesn’t feel quite right’ (in the way the work is done), and I’m sure you’re already well aware that there are things that could be done better, safer. You don’t have to know all the answers, you just need to ask the right question. Take action on the things that could actually save a life, for example guards around augers, fences around dams, better comms for remote or isolated work and conversations about mental health.
“3. Start talking. To your partner, your workers, your contractors, the neighbours, the grower group, the industry association - anyone and everyone - about what it is that needs to be done in order to prevent people from getting hurt. Start a conversation that will eventually make it ‘not cool’ to be unsafe or to take short-cuts. Thirty years ago, nobody wore seatbelts and today we do it without even thinking about it. Ladies, #PlantASeedForSafety… and blokes, #SaveALifeListenToYourWife!
H: What’s next for you?
A: They say that once you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. For me, the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign is that job. I never had the opportunity to become a sixth generation pastoralist however working alongside rural men and women is quite literally a dream come true. I can’t wait to take the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign global, and I can’t wait to tell the story of how rural women lead the conversation for change.
I’ve got to say, I got goose bumps talking to Alex about her vision for the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign. The discussion even influenced me to have a critical conversation with my partner about farm safety to consider the changes we can make together.
Alex also loves to speak at events and often facilitates workshops with groups of rural men and women to extend her message and inspire others to #PlantASeedForSafety. Make sure you follow her social media accounts below to keep up to date with what she’s up to and I invite you to share your own story on her site to help make a change and build the #PlantASeedForSafety momentum. Be sure to also keep an eye on her #PlantASeedForSafety website for forthcoming blogs on how you can improve work health and safety in your workplace. it’s an amazing read and her dedication is instrumental in making people stop to think about how they can improve safety standards, which really is lifesaving work.
*Statistics cited from Traumatic Injury Fatalities (TIF 2016) Dataset – Safe Work Australia, 2016.