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Mairi Whittle talks about how an inspirational mentor and a tragedy on the farm have shaped her health and safety focus on her family farm.

There weren’t formal health and safety processes in place when Mairi and her brothers were growing up on the 607 Ha sheep and beef farm at Makatote – although she says her parents did instill a strong awareness about ‘no go’ areas.

After studying at Lincoln, Mairi worked in rural banking for five years before heading off for her OE, which included working as a rousie and shepherd in Scotland and as a jillaroo in outback Australia.

Returning to New Zealand, she took up a shepherding job at Pukekaka Station near Taihape, where good health and safety processes were well established.

“That was really my farming apprenticeship,” says Mairi. “The manager Rob Stratton had a really good approach to health and safety. He didn’t make a big deal about it, just kept it simple and very accessible and made it part of the farm culture, by communicating well and leading by example.

“New staff got a good induction and we had a whiteboard with all the main hazards on farm, that was updated as needed and we’d talk about any issues that arose during the day.

“There was a good policy around vehicles. The side-by-sides were our main risk and Rob provided training in using those, including handling wet tracks. There were strict no-go zones with side-by-sides and he showed me all the places where incidents had occurred. His view was that a lot of the time that was due to a little lapse in concentration - and knowing about those near misses helped keep you alert.”

After nine months at Pukekaka, with Mairi’s father keen on a change from farming – he is currently studying for a degree in Italian – the opportunity arose to lease the 600ha family farm and buy the stock, 4000 ewes and 1600 hoggets.

She was keen to apply Rob Stratton’s structured but accessible approach to health and safety to her own farm.

“Our parents were always very careful to instill safe behaviour in us. As children, we were well supervised and it was impressed on us not to go near water and the offal pits. Although I do remember being told off by the shearing contractors, for running around in the sheep sheds.

“However, something that really brought home the importance of safety conversations for me was the tragic death of James Hayman, who was at Lincoln at the same time as I was and was killed in a machinery accident on his farm in 2017. His partner Harriet Bremner has been very active in getting conversations going about safety on farms.

“When I talked with Dad about that, he talked about his safety measures. He said to always turn the PTO off before getting out and to never go around the back with the PTO running. He had those safety behaviours in place, but it’s by having conversations and hearing real life examples about them, that others learn and remember from.”

So, when she took over the family farm in July 2018, Mairi set about identifying her critical risks – the main ones being machinery and working with cattle, and she developed a simple induction programme for visitors/contractors as well as taking steps to protect herself, as the sole person on farm.

“Rob has left Pukekaka now but he is still my farm mentor and he has helped me set up my farm systems,” she says.

“He also took me to the Beef + Lamb New Zealand farm safety management course while I was working for him. That certainly covered a lot of things and made me think about identifying my main risks when I came back here.

“My approach is, and the tip I’d share with other farmers is, if it makes you stop and think ‘this could be a little dangerous’ then it probably will be. Take the safe option.”

A quad bike is Mairi’s main on-farm vehicle and Rob’s driving training is firmly front of mind.

“It was a prize for winning a competition at the 2018 Fieldays,” she says. “I installed a roll bar when I first got it.  We have always had them on all the quads we have and it makes so much sense to have a preventative measure in place for what is a common farming risk - rolling motorbikes.

“Machinery is my biggest risk and I’m still gaining experience in using machinery and the tractor and I don’t hesitate to get support with that. I needed to do the topping of the paddock, so when Dad was home last, he did the more difficult  steeper area and left me the easier contour bits.

“My partner Hayden is a shearer and he helps me out and my younger brother Tom is a diesel mechanic locally and very good with machinery, so he’s only too happy to come up and help me when needed – and they don’t judge me for asking.

“I’ve also benefited from Dad’s expertise in that he built a very well-designed cattle yard – so I rarely need to be in the pens with the stock.”

Where needed, Mairi also uses contractors on farm and, while many are familiar with the land already, she makes time to have a chat before they set out on farm, to discuss any issues they or she need to know about.

“We don’t have a signal here so I take one of the contractor’s radios and he has the other with him, so we have communication in case of an emergency,” she says.

“With contractors, I do feel the responsibility of them being on farm and making sure I do everything practical to ensure they are going to be safe. For instance, I provide our aerial contractors with a farm map with all the wires on and I took a flight with them and pointed out all the wires.

“And then there is looking after yourself – that is huge for farmers working alone. I have just bought myself a locator beacon and my neighbours have bought a two-way radio and I think I am going to do the same.

“Now I work for myself, I’ve very aware that if I get sick or hurt, that isn’t just about taking time off with a salary; me being out of action will really hit the bottom line. Keeping myself well and keeping safe are really essential to my farm business.”