Shearers fight for safety

Shearers fight for safety


WITH shearing well underway across the State, shearers and shearing contractors are pushing for better amenities in shearing sheds and an increased focus on safety.


WITH shearing well underway across the State, shearers and shearing contractors are pushing for better amenities in shearing sheds and an increased focus on safety.

A Facebook group set up six weeks ago highlights issues faced by shearers, including a lack of potable water provided at sheds during shearing, no toilets, sheds in poor repair and full and wet sheep.

Since the group was established, almost 1200 shearers have joined the group to share their experiences of sheds across Australia.

Third generation shearer and group administrator Michael Barndon said he set the group up due to a lack of support from the industry to address the issues.

Formerly from Kellerberrin and now based interstate, Mr Barndon worked as a shearer until he was forced to stop in November 2014 from an injury suffered during shearing.

Mr Barndon cited examples of shearing during 40?C days and no access to running or potable water at the shed, no toilets for female shearers, unpatched or poorly patched holes in shed floors, numerous injuries from wet or full sheep and "locked up" combs and cutters becoming "projectiles", causing significant face and body injuries.

He said many shearers were wary about speaking up about safety and workplace issues due to job security.

"If you speak up about wet or full sheep, having no water, no toilet and general problems with the shed, they get rid of you," he said.

"Everyone else seems to have the right to safety at work except for us."

What was the bedrock of the labour movement in Australia and tightly controlled industry by the union in the past, Mr Barndon said shearers had received very little support from the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

"They know there are issues out there, but we get no backing and nothing gets addressed," he said.

The AWU was contacted for comment.

Both the Australian Shearing Contractors' Association (ASCA) and WA Shearing Industry Association (WASIA) said one of the consequences following the 1983 wide comb dispute and subsequent lessening of the union stronghold was that there had been little improvement in shed amenities.

ASCA secretary Jason Letchford said the state of sheds and amenities across Australia tended to be on a "bell curve", where the majority were in good condition but there were some "shocking" sheds out there.

"Farmers collectively understand the need to keep sheds in working order but then act individually on what they will do on their own farm," he said.

"However, the law is not ambiguous - it is the responsibility of the farmer and the shearing contractor to provide a safe working environment for workers."

Mr Letchford said contractors faced the dilemma of "being the policeman"and pointing out defects but ran the risk of not being hired the following year.

However, it also meant farmers who declined to provide basic amenities had a "smaller and less skilled" pool of shearers to choose from the following year.

He said many contractors were now resorting to bringing their own equipment such as portable toilets to ensure that basic amenities were provided.

"This gives the contractor a competitive advantage in terms of attracting workers and clients, but it also means they wear a lot of the cost that used to be provided by the farmer."

WASIA president and shearing contractor Darren Spencer said in his experience "about 20 per cent" of sheds in WA were not in good working order.

"You do come across farmers who won't spend any money on the shed because they only use it for a week or so each year, but then they will spend $700,000 on a piece of machinery they only use for three weeks of the year," he said.

"Contractors are between a rock and a hard place - we know what shearers are having to put up with in some sheds but if we refuse to start work due to conditions it affects our program and we run the risk of losing clients," he said.

"The other thing is that a farmer might think it only their shed and accommodation that's rough, but for shearers travelling all year, it is just one of many places that aren't up to standard."

He said the biggest issue facing shearers this year was the size of sheep due to the extensive feed available.

"We are already contending with Merinos and Prime SAMMs which are big and very strong but with all the feed they are huge this year," Mr Spencer said.

"Add to this the average age of the shearing population is between 40 to 60 years of age and when they're shearing sheep that can be around 110 kilograms we're seeing a lot more back and soft tissue injuries.

"This will end up costing farmers more as contractors have to pay higher workers compensation policies to cover these type of injuries."

Another major issue was farmers' hesitation to pen and properly drain sheep due to concerns about the animals losing condition.

This meant shearers were having to wrestle with extremely heavy animals, increasing the risk of serious injury.

He said WASIA and other farming groups had worked closely with WorkSafe WA in the mid 2000s to introduce guidelines to identify safety hazards in shearing and work with farmers to correct them.

He said the program had helped in educating farmers and bring a lot of sheds "up to scratch" in WA but it needed to be promoted more widely.

WorkSafe WA director and chief inspector Chris Kirwin said shearers needed to "lobby member groups"and speak to local safety authorities if they had concerns about conditions.

Mr Kirwin said there had been no prosecutions in the shearing industry for poor or unsafe conditions in recent years.

WorkSafe has the power to issue two different types of notices - a prohibition notice to cease work immediately until "life threatening" hazards such as unguarded machinery and electrical faults had been rectified or improvement notices allowing farmers time to fix issues.

"Improvement notices issued for shearing shed hazards can have 12 month lead times allowing farmers to fix hazards in time for the following season," Mr Kirwin said.

However, a lack of amenities was "very difficult" to legislate.

WAFarmers livestock policy executive officer Kim Haywood said she had not been made aware of issues surrounding shearing shed conditions in WA.

She said farmers had a duty of care to workers on their farm and ensure they were meeting occupational health and safety requirements.

"Shearers play a very important role in the wool supply chain and we need to make sure that facilities are up to scratch," Ms Haywood said.


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