Currently a bill is making its way through the New Zealand parliament, updating health and safety in the workplace. Michael Woodhouse (Minister of Health and Safety) has signed of on a list of high risk industries. These industries must appoint a health and safety officer if the workers want one. Fair enough, you might say, and I would have thought so too – until the list of high risk industries was published.
As you might expect, mining is on the list, but strangely, laying explosives for building demolition isn’t. Neither is dairy, cattle and sheep farming, which account for a third of all work place injuries and more than 100 deaths over the last five years. On the other hand, worm farming, butterfly farming, lavender growing and managing a mini-golf course have been classified as high risk industries.Why?
Worms and butterflies have a tendency to attack en mass any unsuspecting worker, smothering and devouring their hapless victims. Lavender plants send out tendrils to trip farmers before sucking the life blood out of them. Mini-golfers who play a poor round take their frustration out by wrapping their club around the head of the nearest course attendant. Yeah, right.
So why is butterfly farming considered more dangerous than laying explosives? Statistics. And we all know statistics don’t lie, don’t we? They may not lie, but they don’t always tell the truth in a meaningful way. And this is what appears to have happened in this case. How?
First some background for those not familiar with the situation in Aotearoa New Zealand. Medical treatment is either heavily subsidised or free depending on where the treatment occurs. Hospitals are free, GPs, medical centres, physiotherapists, etc are subsidised. Funding for the treatment of illness and disease is sourced from general taxation and administered by the Health Department.
On the other hand, medical treatment for injuries are paid by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). ACC funding comes from three sources. Work place injuries are funded from a fee paid by employers, based on the number of employees and the type of work undertaken. Injuries from motor vehicle accidents are funded from a surcharge on motor vehicle registration fees, and varies depending on the type of vehicle. All other injuries are covered by a fixed rate tax on personal income, which is deducted by the employer and paid to ACC via the Inland Revenue Department.
ACC keeps detailed statistics based on industry and types of work in order to levy appropriate fees from employers. This information was too detailed for the purposes of the legislation, so to simplify the system, data was collected by industry only and the number of categories was reduced. Worm farming, butterfly farming and Lavender growing are grouped under farming – other. That by itself is bound to cause problems as they are grouped with other types of farming that are far more dangerous, such as crocodile farming. We’ll get to crocodiles shortly.
In compiling the figures someone decided that a population of 4.5 million wasn’t of sufficient size to gather reliable data from, so they decided that as Australia has more than 5 times as many people as New Zealand, they would include data from there as well.
Unfortunately Australia is very different from New Zealand. While NZ has very hilly and mountainous terrain, Australia is flat – very flat. Farms are large and farm transport is likely to be a Land Rover, a pick-up truck or similar vehicle with an enclosed cab. NZ farmers are more likely to get around on a quad bike, even on terrain where quad bikes shouldn’t go. Quad bikes aren’t required to have a roll cage and as a consequence are one of the most common causes of farm related accidents in NZ. By including data for dairy, sheep and cattle farming in Australia, with the NZ data, these industries appear safer than using NZ data alone.
Now we come to the crocodiles. The only place you’ll see a crocodile in NZ is in a museum, stuffed. But in Australia they are farmed, and you guessed it, they are classified as farming – other, as is emu farming. As a result, farming – other becomes a dangerous place to work.
Okay, I’ve explained why those seemingly innocuous farming activities have been classified as high risk, but what about mini-golf? That gentle sport is in the category recreation – other, the same as white water rafting. Need I say more?
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