Ground-breaking research helps save lives and livelihoods on NZ farms

26 May 2008

New research into New Zealander’s on-farm handling of quadbikes has revealed how an incompatibility between design and use, plus a tendency for farmers to learn by ‘trial and error’, has turned this common farm vehicle into a $8.3 million annual liability.

Recently completed research by Dave Moore, ergonomics scientist with Scion’s Centre for Human Factors and Ergonomics (COHFE), is helping farmers and industry bodies reduce fatalities and injuries resulting from work-related quadbike accidents on New Zealand farms.

Dr Moore was recently awarded a PhD from Massey University for his ground-breaking research into what the Department of Labour referred to as “the single most worrying trend in work-related accidents in agriculture”.

Quadbike accidents are responsible for hundreds of injuries and several fatalities on New Zealand farms every year. Associated insurance costs have more than doubled in the past five years, standing at $8.3 million in 2007 for ACC alone.

The study was the first of its kind to apply a systems perspective to quadbike use, using interviews and ‘reconstructions’ at the site of the incident, to capture data.

“There had been plenty of media attention on quadbike accidents over the years, so it was amazing to find how little research of any substance had been undertaken onsite at farms,” Moore says.

By developing a new investigative methodology drawing on fields such as forensics and air accident investigations, Moore was also able to identify 71 areas where quadbike safety could be improved through modification, training, regulation or reorganisation of farm work and management.

He believes many problems stem from quadbikes originally being designed for recreation rather than as a vehicle tailored for farm tasks, and because they look more ‘error tolerant’ than they actually are.

“Many farmers like to test equipment to the limit. Unfortunately, quadbikes can be too error-intolerant.  For example, unlike larger wheel-based vehicles, the quad will often tip before it slides, potentially trapping the operator. They don’t have as much opportunity to learn from mistakes as they expect to have,” says Moore.

The research also highlighted concerns about the wider industry.

“We clearly identified a need for greater error tolerance to be built into the design of quadbikes used in a wide diversity of off-road situations. Overseas designers, those deciding specifications for imported quads, and implement manufacturers in New Zealand should look closer at how they can offer a tool that farmers really need.”

“Adequate skills and task-specific training would also help, as would advanced training to give users the ability to get out of difficult situations that are commonly encountered, most notably running out of traction on an ascent with a trailer in tow.”

He also considers the domestic accessory market to be under-regulated.

“Trailers and other add-on designs should be proven to match buyers’ expectations. At the moment, many farmers buy in good faith and are too likely to get an unpleasant surprise.”

ACC, the Department of Labour, and the Agricultural Health and Safety Council (AHSC) are now looking to adopt some of the suggestions made in the study into their own policies and guidelines, for example the fitting of reversing beepers.

“At least one fatality and many injuries can be attributed to inadvertent reversing accidents in recent years. Reversing beepers are a simple modification which cost less than $100 to fit,” says Moore.

Of additional concern to Moore is that payouts for existing claims are today double those of new claims, having been roughly equal in 2002.

“These statistics indicate an increase in the severity and longevity of injuries caused by quadbike accidents. We need to find out why this is happening.”

Moore is now working with ACC, the Department of Labour and AHSC on further research to investigate these areas.

Key targets for this follow-on research include training for riders new to the industry, improvement of investigation methods for off-road incidents and improving rider attention to the route ahead while working with stock.

“It is the indirect costs to the injured rider, their family and the local infrastructure that are the real burden of these long-term cases. We are looking forward to working with ACC, the Department of Labour and AHSC to address this by finding out how to not only reduce the incidence of quadbike injuries but, perhaps even more importantly, the severity.”