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Fatigue on four wheels: How a farmer’s life turned upside down
A quad bike accident drove home to one farmer how exhausted he really was - and prompted him to change gears to improve his wellbeing.
Farmer Chris Biddles was on his quad bike and he was exhausted. In a split second his life was turned upside down.
On a ridge above his Te Kopuru farm near Dargaville, Northland, he drove past the only safe turning spot and, without thinking, attempted a new route down. The 500kg quad bike flipped, catapulting him down the hill and rolling after him. His ankle was crushed, his right shoulder broken in half.
Chris says he's lucky, "bloody lucky".
"I knew I was going to be four months in a wheelchair, but it could have been my life," he says.
"I was really tired and because of that I made a dumb decision. That's the danger of fatigue. You do something you wouldn't normally do."
Stress, sleep, slip-ups
Quad bikes feature all too often in farm accidents and were involved in almost a third of farm fatalities last year. But Chris' fatigue is an example of a much more prevalent factor in agricultural accidents – diminished wellbeing.
An ACC-funded study for Farmstrong shows 58% of recently injured farmers linked their accident to stress associated with farm work. A quarter of them said it was a major factor.
Exhaustion, lack of sleep, the stresses of farming, being isolated from friends and family, and being unable to take a break all add to the risks that a farmer or farm worker will have an accident, the new research shows.
Live well to farm well
Farmstrong is a rural wellbeing initiative for farmers and growers to help them 'live well to farm well'. It encourages farmers to share their stories and to look after themselves as well as they do their pasture and livestock.
Farmers need encouragement because they learn to be self-reliant, resilient, to harden up and suck it in. But as the pressures pile up, some push themselves too far. Chris was just one of more than 20,000 people in the agriculture sector injured at work last year, ACC claims data shows.
Chris has been farming for 45 years, time enough to make plenty of mistakes - and to learn from them. He's 66 years old now, and the accident has had a profound impact on him.
"Right from day one of the accident I've felt an obligation, a will to stop other people making my mistakes," he says.
"Please, please, not only recognise when you're fatigued but do something about it. That's the trouble - we don't sit down and say 'let's take 10 minutes to evaluate where am I, what's our situation.' You just keep head down, ass up."
Chris says all it would take is "half an hour over a beer or coffee or something to say 'is my mental state going to cause problems on the farm, for me or for someone else or for your animals?'."
During 2019, more than 18,000 farmers and farm workers participated in Farmstrong. Some 20% of those surveyed credited Farmstrong with improving their wellbeing and 11% said it gave them more ability to cope with the challenges of farming.
A key to Farmstrong's success has been sharing farmer-to-farmer stories about what works for them. Other initiatives include workshops on healthy thinking and nutrition, fitness challenges, cycling tours, appearances at A&P shows and even woolshed comedy shows.
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Agriculture is New Zealand's biggest export earner but it's also one of our most high-risk industries with annual injury claim costs of about $50 million.
There are always extra pressures and stresses on farmers. This year, farmers have faced drought in many parts of the country. Global markets have been volatile in the wake of widespread COVID-19 disruptions.
"Farmers spend their lives growing our food and milk and helping our economy. But they're not great at looking after themselves," says Paul Gimblett, ACC's Head of Workplace Safety & Levies.
"We're proud to be partnering with Farmstrong and its focus on simple tools like getting enough sleep, eating right, getting some exercise."
We became a strategic partner of Farmstrong in 2016, joining FMG and the Mental Health Foundation. And we've recently committed $3.5 million over the next five years. It's just one of our injury prevention investments in the rural sector, including a subsidy on roll bars or crush protection devices for quad bikes and Tahi Ngātahi – an online training platform for shearers and other woolshed workers.
Chris says he has pretty much decided to get crush protection devices fitted on three quad bikes on the farm. He favours an AgTech roll bar that is made down the road in Dargaville and qualifies for the subsidy.
"Probably the thing that's changed for me is I'm so much more aware and shit scared on a quad bike now," he says. "Treat these things with a bit of respect. And I just keep telling people about fatigue, how dangerous it is."
Farmstrong is a nationwide wellbeing programme for the rural community:
WorkSafe has health and safety information about farming:
We have tools for staying healthy and safe at work:
Find out whether you're eligible for a crush protection device for quad bikes: